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New atmospheric river pushes into swamped California

APTOPIX California Storms
Posted at 10:15 AM, Mar 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-14 13:15:29-04

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Forecasters warned of more flooding, potentially damaging winds and difficult travel conditions on mountain highways as a new atmospheric river pushed into swamped California early Tuesday.

Initial precipitation was light as the system spread across northern and central regions. But the National Weather Service said it was intensifying, and the heaviest rainfall was still offshore.

The system was expected to be a quick hit, rapidly moving from north to south. But authorities worried about runoff causing flooding because California's extraordinarily wet winter has left soils supersaturated.

So far this winter, the state has been battered by 10 previous atmospheric rivers, long plumes of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, as well as powerful storms fueled by arctic air that produced blizzard conditions. On the East Coast, the start of a winter storm with heavy, wet snow caused a plane to slide off the runway and led to hundreds of school closings, canceled flights and thousands of power outages in parts of the Northeast on Tuesday.

In California, more dangerous flooding was expected on the central coast, where a levee was breached as the Pajaro River swelled with runoff from an atmospheric river last week.

The Pajaro River's first levee rupture grew to at least 400 feet (120 meters) since it failed late Friday, officials said. More than 8,500 people were forced to evacuate, and about 50 people had to be rescued as the water rose that night.

Still, some stayed behind in Pajaro, an unincorporated community that is known for its strawberry crops and is now mostly flooded. The largely Latino farmworker community there is already struggling to find food with so many roads and businesses closed in the storm's aftermath.

“Some people have nowhere to go, and maybe that’s why there’s still people around," resident Jorbelit Rincon said Monday. "Pretty much they don’t know where to go and don’t have money to provide for themselves.”

A second breach opened up another 100 feet (30.48 meters) of the levee closer to the Pacific coast, providing a “relief valve” for the floodwaters to recede near the mouth of the river, officials said Monday during a news conference.

Built in the late 1940s to provide flood protection, the levee has been a known risk for decades and had several breaches in the 1990s. Emergency repairs to a section of the berm were undertaken in January. A $400 million rebuild is set to begin in the next few years.

Along the Southern California coast, evacuation orders were scheduled to take effect at 8 a.m. Tuesday in Santa Barbara County for several areas that were burned by wildfires in recent years. Burned soil can be water-repellent, increasing the risk of flash floods and flows of debris such as downed trees, according to the National Weather Service.

Water from the newest storm was likely to go over the Pajaro River's levee — but crews were working to make sure the rupture doesn't get any larger, said Shaunna Murray of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. Over the weekend, crews had to build access roads to get to the site of the breach and bring in rocks and boulders to plug the gap.

The river separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of San Francisco. Several roads were closed including a stretch of coastal Highway 1, a main route between the two counties.

Monterey County officials also warned that the Salinas River could cause significant flooding of roadways and agricultural land, cutting off the Monterey Peninsula from the rest of the county. The city of Monterey and other communities are located on the peninsula.

Undersheriff Keith Boyd said first responders have rescued about 170 people who were stranded within the county's evacuation areas since Friday, including a woman and her baby who got stuck trying to drive through high waters.

The undersheriff said 20 to 40 people remained trapped Monday near the Salinas River because the roads were impassible for rescuers.

Authorities had not received reports of any deaths or missing persons related to the storm as of Monday afternoon.

Winery and agricultural experts from the region said they are concerned about the storms' effect on crops — both ones in the ground that are currently submerged and ones that should be planted for the upcoming growing season.

Karla Loreto, who works at a Pajaro gas station, said she is worried about the toll the flooding will take on the area's farmworkers.

“The fields are flooded right now," she said Monday. "Probably no jobs there right now. For this year, probably no strawberries, no blackberries, no blueberries.”