There is currently no estimate for when thousands of residents displaced by flooding from a burst levee along the Pajaro River in Monterey County can return home, three days after intense rain forced the entire town to evacuate. Those who stayed behind were urged to leave by Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon with other county officials.

High water vehicles continued to make rescues throughout the day, mostly of people who no longer wanted to stay in their homes given the prolonged power outages and lack of potable water.

“We want people to get back into their homes as soon as possible and we’re going to do whatever we can to make that happen, but there’s going to be cases, without a doubt, that people will not be able to return to some of their homes,” said county spokesman Nicholas Pasculli.

The Pajaro community in north Monterey County has been under mandatory evacuation orders since Friday night and under an advisory to not drink the water since Saturday, even if it is boiled, because of unknown contaminants. Customers of the San Ardo Water District and Sunny Mesa Water System were also under orders to not drink or boil water.

Nieto said more than 2,000 people had been evacuated from Pajaro from 800 homes, two mobile home parks and one school. Despite the evacuation order, Nieto said nobody would be forced from their homes. When asked by a reporter about delivering bottled water, Nieto said the Sheriff’s Office did not have such capacity and said people should not stay in the evacuation zone.

“We need people to leave. It’s a risk to stay there,” Nieto said.

Shelters nearing capacity

The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds emergency shelter was at its capacity of 320 people as of 3 p.m. Tuesday. Those who arrive are receiving transportation to other county shelters that have capacity.

Rides to shelters can be also accessed at evacuation points at the Prunedale, King City, and Carmel Valley Libraries.

Discounted hotel rooms are available from 30 area hotels, compiled into a list provided by Rob O’Keefe, president of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We need people to leave. It’s a risk to stay there.”

Sheriff Tina Nieto

Stabilization work continued on Tuesday at the site of the primary breach at the Pajaro River levee at river mile 10, but it could take weeks to make the section impermeable, said county engineer Shaunna Murray.

About 10 to 15 feet of rocks and material had been placed by Tuesday morning along all but 30 feet of the once 400-foot gap. The final portion will take the longest to complete, before the wall is at a height of 20 feet.

Water flows in the Pajaro, Salinas and Carmel Rivers continued to be monitored ahead of more rain forecast for later in the week.

Drone footage shows ongoing efforts to repair a 400-foot-wide break in the Pajaro River levee in Monterey County on March 14, 2023. (Video image via Monterey County/Facebook)

At the Pajaro River, a second breach that opened Sunday night about a mile from the river mouth is helping alleviate upstream pressure, Murray said. The initial breach was created because pressure built up at the river mouth which caused water to overtop and erode the levee.

Areas along the Salinas River corridor remained under evacuation orders as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, from Greenfield to Gonzales and from Gonzales to Spreckels.

Countywide, 21,000 people were under evacuation warnings or orders, including communities along the Carmel River, San Ardo, and Arroyo Seco.

Officials from the Mexican consulate of San Jose said they would work to assess any needs of farmworkers who were displaced who might need identity documents replaced, relocation, and what financial assistance might be available.

Many of those displaced work in the agriculture industry, which has been severely affected by the flooding. Mexican Consul Blanca Zarazua said there was a lot of fear in the labor market right now among farmworkers, and that while some could move to jobs in other areas, not everyone can, especially families and those who have lost everything.

“We stand committed to the Spanish speaking population,” she said.