In Santa Cruz, the deluge came from the skies and the sea

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — The surfers were loving it.

A set of waves was breaking Sunday just offshore from the main beach in this college town known for its mountain biking, laid-back atmosphere and famous surf spots. This wasn’t one of them though. A parade of rainstorms had swelled the San Lorenzo River, pushing heaps of sand out of its mouth and building up a sandbar that was kicking up near-perfect waves.

A dozen surfers bobbed in the choppy, brown water, kept company by a lone seal. “This is very rare,” said Zack Edwards, 48, a local who has lived in the area for 30 years. He hasn’t seen anything like it since the 1990s, and this time the waves were even better, Edwards said, as more surfers came bounding down the beach and into the water.

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The surf break was a bright spot in an otherwise devastating week for Santa Cruz and the surrounding area, which have been hit with withering rain and wind storms that have flooded neighborhoods and wrecked historic seaside attractions and killed at least one person in the city. Starting last week, a series of atmospheric rivers have slammed into California’s central coast.

The deluge has brought more rain to the drought-stricken state in a handful of days than it’s used to getting in months. Landslides, floods and fallen trees have closed roads and cut power for tens of thousands of people. At least 12 people have died statewide, officials said. On Monday, President Biden declared a state of emergency for California at the request of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

Strongest atmospheric river yet battering California with damaging floods

Santa Cruz has been among the hardest hit, thanks to its idyllic location right on the ocean, nestled amid the Santa Cruz Mountains. The water has come from two sides — pushed in by the sea in the form of a massive storm surge, and falling from the sky, pouring over the mountains and swelling streams, creeks and rivers with brown, rolling water.

The sea has severely damaged two iconic piers — in the seaside hamlet of Capitola just outside Santa Cruz, and a little farther south, in the town of Seacliff. On Jan. 5, waves crashed into Capitola’s pastel-colored bungalows. A few days later, during a break in the storms, tourists and residents took photos of the damage as owners cleaned out piles of sand and installed new wood panels over their windows in preparation for the next storm.

Half of the town’s restaurants and gift shops were shuttered and sandbagged, while the rest, on slightly higher ground, were still open for business. A massive chunk of the wharf was simply missing, splintered timber hanging down from what was left of it, the entire area blocked off by police tape.

Doug Bragdon, 54, a local finance manager, was on the cliffs overlooking Capitola, sketching the view and the damaged wharf. Bragdon, who has lived in the area for 30 years, said he had seen bad storms before, but the damage to the wharf was new to him. The next storm was just hours away, and he feared it would bring fresh damage.

“If you live within 10 feet of elevation of the ocean, you’ve got to be ready to evac to high ground at any time,” he said.

He was right. Overnight Sunday, another dump of rain fell. It rushed down the hills around the city, which were already waterlogged by previous storms, and collected in the San Lorenzo River, which runs down from the mountains, past redwood groves and down through the city center.

In the Felton Groves neighborhood just north of the city, the water broke the banks of the river, pouring into homes. Bethany and James Rogers, knowing their home might be in danger, had spent the night in their truck. When they checked on the house early Monday, they found it in three feet of fast-moving water.

“We knew because of where our house is it was going to be bad,” said Bethany Rogers, who said she had experienced flooding in the same area 11 years ago. “We didn’t know it was going to be that bad.”

The two found refuge at a Red Cross shelter in the neighboring town of Watsonville, the same place they evacuated to three years ago when wildfires threatened their neighborhood.

Watsonville, a 30-minute drive south of Santa Cruz, was hit hard, too. On Monday, the predominantly Latino city of about 50,000 was peppered with road closures, forcing people trying to reach the Red Cross shelter to take a circuitous route through flooded farm fields. Tarps that covered greenhouses had been ripped off by the storm, and fruit trees poked out from orchards that now looked like giant lakes.

Across the region, livestock had to be evacuated along with their owners. Debra Means, 64, a volunteer with Equine Evac, a nonprofit organization that helps house horses, pigs, donkeys and cows during disasters, said one equestrian center was wiped out by floodwaters, forcing 50 to 70 horses to be evacuated.

Means said the storms were the worst she has seen since at least 1982, when a giant rainstorm led to deadly landslides.

Now though, the impact of the rainstorms is heightened by the state’s annual wildfires. Burned-out areas, lacking strong trees with deep root networks, are more susceptible to landslides. Debris from burn scars has been pushed into creeks and rivers, blocking the free flow of water.

Those fires have made Santa Cruz accustomed to natural disasters. In 2020, a fire ripped through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, northwest of the city, destroying 90-year-old historic buildings and killing thousands of trees.

Last year, Means’s mother, who is in her 80s, had to leave her home for eight months because of debris that had been pushed by rain from a burned-out area through the creek that ran on the property. Now she has been evacuated again.

“We live in California,” Means said. “Climate change is here.”

By Monday afternoon, the rain had stopped. The sun pushed through clouds and began shining over the Pacific, a sight that felt surreal after days of rain and overcast skies. Some shops remained closed, but much of the city of Santa Cruz felt like it was back to normal, with residents shopping for groceries, working on laptops in coffee shops and dropping their kids off at dance practice.

More rain was on the way, though. Another storm was expected early Tuesday morning, and the river was still rising.