WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) — The latest powerful atmospheric river to drench California has put nearly 27,000 people under evacuation orders as of Tuesday due to flooding and landslide risks. On the central coast, workers hauled truckloads of rocks to plug a broken river levee amid steady rain and wind.
At one end of the muddy Pajaro River's ruptured levee, the long arm of a yellow earth-moving machine pressed rocks into place before big boulders were brought in to fill the gap that opened late Friday, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of San Francisco.
Forecasters warned of potentially damaging winds with gusts up to 70 mph (113 kph) and there were numerous reports of falling trees. Power outages hit more than 330,000 utility customers in northern and central areas, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide.
The new storm initially spread light to moderate rain over the state's north and center. But the National Weather Service said the storm was moving more quickly than expected and most of the precipitation would shift southward.
So far this winter, California 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 a runway and led to hundreds of school closings, canceled flights and thousands of power outages Tuesday.
Along the Southern California coast, evacuation orders began at 8 a.m. in Santa Barbara County for several areas burned by wildfires in recent years, creating increased risk of flash floods and debris flows.
The storm added to woes that caused emergency declarations for 40 counties.
In addition to evacuation orders, more than 71,600 people were under evacuation warnings and 546 people were in shelters, said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Office of Emergency Services.
More flooding was expected on the central coast, where the Pajaro River swelled with runoff from last week's atmospheric river. Authorities had not received reports of any deaths or missing persons related to the storm as of Monday afternoon.
The levee breach grew to at least 400 feet (120 meters) since the failure late Friday, officials said. More than 8,500 people were forced to evacuate, and about 50 people were rescued as the water rose that night.
Pajaro, an unincorporated community known for its strawberry crops, was largely flooded. Some residents of the largely Latino farmworker community stayed. Others went to an emergency shelter where they wondered what became of their homes.
“We live seven houses away from the river and the water level was six feet high, seven probably,” said evacuee Andres Garcia. “So we probably lost everything.”
A second 100-foot breach (30 meters) in the levee opened closer to the Pacific coast, providing a “relief valve” for floodwaters to recede near the mouth of the river, officials said at a news conference Monday.
Built in the late 1940s to provide flood protection, the levee was 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.
“We had so many years of drought and they could’ve fixed the levee way back and they didn’t," said Garcia, the Pajaro evacuee. "This is the second time it happened. Back in 1995, same thing. We lost everything.”
The river separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Highway 1, a main link between the two counties, was closed along with several other roads.
Monterey County officials also warned that the Salinas River could cause significant flooding, cutting off the city of Monterey and the rest of 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.
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.
Antczak reported from Los Angeles. AP writers Stefanie Dazio and Christopher Weber contributed from Los Angeles.