Residents of Pajaro are slowly returning home this weekend after evacuation orders for the Monterey County community were lifted on Thursday. But the eagerly anticipated all-clear message came with a health warning from county emergency services officials due to sanitation concerns.

The evacuations were ordered in the wake of a levee breach that left some parts of the town under several feet of water on March 10.

Though people are allowed to return to their homes, the county advised that there are still significant health risks in the area and warned that anyone choosing to do so enters at their own risk.

There is still no potable water available and toilets cannot be flushed, said county officials, though it said Pajaro Sunny Mesa Services and county staff are working “diligently” to restore the sewer system.

For those who return, cleaning, toilet, shower, handwashing and laundry stations have been set up at Pajaro Park at 24 San Juan Road and Pajaro Middle School at 250 Salinas Road in Pajaro. Bottled water is also available at those locations.

For those needing transportation to the clean water sites, Monterey-Salinas Transit is providing ride services, county officials said.

The entire Pajaro community was evacuated the night of March 10 and water remains shut off.

Repairs to a broken sewer main were expected to be completed by Friday, county Public Works director Randy Ishii said.

Inspections revealed damage to 903 buildings in Pajaro. Another 459 buildings were deemed undamaged, according to Cal Fire Division Chief George Nunez.

Six homes were red-tagged by county inspectors, meaning they are too dangerous to enter. Buildings with yellow tags or placards are safe to enter but unsafe to live in.

Levee safety questioned

At a public meeting held on Tuesday, residents vented their frustration at the neglect of the Pajaro River levee and the community itself and asked about financial assistance.

The need for repairs has long been known to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state and county water officials. The county Board of Supervisors was told during a presentation in February that the levee was at risk of overtopping at lower levels than hydrographs suggest, partially because of vegetation that had grown in the river.

To prepare for levee overtopping at the time, county crews installed 3,000 feet of emergency concrete block and portable Muscle Wall designed to contain overflowing water along the upper stretch of the levee, stockpiled supplies, strengthened and made repairs to levee roads and banks, improved all-weather access for the levee and identified key areas to monitor river flows. But none of that prevented the flooding of Pajaro.

A major construction project to redo the levee system is scheduled to start in 2025 and last for several years. A joint powers agency tasked with overseeing the project previously called the levees “crucially deficient.”