Battered by Storms, Central Coast of California Prepares for Another Deluge
APTOS, Calif. — Chuck Hawley stared out at the waves swirling through Monterey Bay as he prepared to destroy the small beachfront home his parents built by hand in 1957.
He had no choice: Storm-fueled waves in the region, just east of Santa Cruz, had torn the 1,100-square-foot house off its foundations and floated it 30 feet into the street. There it sat, miraculously still intact but posing a hazard by blocking the road to cars.
Mr. Hawley’s parents started bringing him and his siblings to the beach house when he was 2, and Mr. Hawley, now the property manager, often rented it to family friends. He recalled sitting on the deck and watching the surf for hours with his father, who has since died. Mr. Hawley, 67, had hoped that one day his grandchildren would form similar memories there.
Instead, he was left with a sense of emptiness. “We’ve had two days to come to the conclusion that this house that’s been around for 65 years is no more,” he said, choking up.
A barrage of powerful storms has surprised residents across Northern California with an unrelenting period of extreme weather stretching over weeks, with only small intervals of dryness. These storms have toppled trees, washed out streets and knocked out power for hundreds of thousands, but they have been particularly devastating to the Santa Cruz region, where prolonged rain and wind have combined with the unique topography to inflict recurring damage.
Chuck Hawley with Isla Dowd, his granddaughter, in front of his home.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times
Already drenched by a storm on Dec. 31, the Santa Cruz area — a tourist-friendly stretch of beaches on the Central Coast of California, 70 miles south of San Francisco — was again inundated in some parts with as much as five inches of rain and driving winds of up to 75 miles per hour on Wednesday and Thursday. And it was wearily preparing for more severe weather starting Monday.
An unlucky confluence of high tides, storm surge and high surf left hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses damaged by floodwater and mountains of sand this past weekend. The extreme conditions eroded coastlines and beaches, destroyed parts of several piers and forced many to evacuate low-lying homes. And the impending storm on Monday raises the risk of landslides as more water falls on saturated earth.
“We’re very concerned,” said Dave Reid, the director of the Santa Cruz County Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience. “As you get more and more of these rain events piling on top of each other, our mountains literally begin to melt, and we get more landslides and damage to our infrastructure.”
Mr. Reid said the unrelenting nature of the storms, just days apart from one another, was exhausting emergency responders and impeding the county’s efforts to assess damage and begin repairs.
“We really consider this disaster to be the cumulative effect of all of these events in such a short time frame,” he said.
Santa Cruz has long been far rainier than its neighboring counties, mostly because of its topography, said Jan Null, a veteran meteorologist and former lead forecaster for the National Weather Service. Storms coming from the Pacific Ocean slam into the Santa Cruz Mountains, forcing the air to lift and become colder, which creates more precipitation.
“It’s not uncommon in any given storm to have four times the rainfall in the Santa Cruz Mountains as you do in San Francisco,” Mr. Null said.
The drastic differences in precipitation in places just 10 miles apart is a phenomenon rarely seen outside California, driven by the proximity of the ocean and mountains, he said.
“The whole theme of the Bay Area is microclimates,” he said.
The ferocity of the waves and severity of structural damage recalled, for some residents, memories of the disastrous 1982 storm that flooded rivers, badly damaged a bridge and killed 22 people, including 10 in a landslide that occurred just as a 30-hour rainstorm let up. On Jan. 5 of that year, the hillside above Love Creek, about 10 miles north of Santa Cruz, turned to liquid, with approximately 600,000 cubic yards of land — enough to fill 60,000 dump trucks — sliding down the mountain.
This year’s storm rivals 1982’s, “and nothing else in between has come close,” said Carin Hanna, 78, who owns the Craft Gallery gift shop in Capitola, a town next to Santa Cruz. “It shows the incredible force of the ocean,” she added.
Santa Cruz is also prone to flooding because its creeks and its biggest waterway, the San Lorenzo River, are not big enough to contain all of the water from heavy rainfall, experts say. Over the weekend, the river was so swollen that surfers were riding waves headed out to sea, rather than the other direction, and emergency responders warned of flood risks along the banks on Monday.
Parts of West Cliff Drive, a winding Santa Cruz road at the edge of the cliffs overlooking the ocean, were closed after chunks of the street were wiped out by 20-foot-tall waves. Earlier storms had already pounded at the cliffs and washed away some barriers, like riprap — giant rocks placed at the edge of the cliffs to protect against erosion — a frightening sight for some residents.
On Thursday morning, Lindsay Maggioncalda was on her laptop in a meeting for her job at Duolingo, the language platform, on the second floor of her oceanfront home in Santa Cruz. Suddenly, a wave struck the storm-resistant window mere feet away from where she was sitting on the couch.
“Tons of water just went bam, like a huge crash, big vibrations,” Ms. Maggioncalda, 25, said. “I was gasping.”
Her father, Jeff Maggioncalda, ventured into the soaked neighborhood to film the chaos, retreating quickly when more waves blasted through the gaps in the street near him.
“This was by far the worst storm we’ve seen,” said Mr. Maggioncalda, 54, the chief executive of the online education company Coursera.
During a dry period on Saturday, residents were doing their best to clear logs from their yards, replace soggy sandbags and shovel away the sand that had burst through their garage doors.
Walking on Rio Del Mar Beach in Aptos with her two dogs, Isaura Rochin, 52, was picking up trash that had swept onto the beach. In the distance, the S.S. Palo Alto, a World War I-era concrete tanker ship beloved by local residents, who know it as the Cement Ship, had been badly damaged by the storm, and part of the pier connecting it to Seacliff State Beach had crumbled into the sea.
“I’m sad about the wharf,” Ms. Rochin said. “The Cement Ship, I’m sad, but it’s been deteriorating for years and years.”
In Capitola, as rain began to drench the streets once again, Dominick King was rushing to save anything he could from his restaurant, My Thai Beach, before the next storm. The restaurant, along with many others next to the beach, was soaked by floodwater that crept up from the foundation, severing plumbing and warping the floor.
Mr. King, 34, had just remodeled the interior after inheriting the restaurant from his mother, who had struggled to steer it through the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he expects it to be closed for months.
“We were trying to get the business back on the right foot,” he said. “Things were going really good. It’s tough, man. It’s definitely a huge setback.”
Gary Griggs, a professor of earth sciences who has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since the 1960s, said that the same spots in Santa Cruz, like the Capitola pier and West Cliff Drive, had been damaged once or twice a decade by storms, but that people had “short-disaster memory.”
He said the region needed to seriously consider moving development away from the coastline because there was no way to escape inevitable sea level rise.
“What this storm is telling us is it’s time to think a little more long term and make some decisions,” he said. “We’ve been Band-aiding things together for a long time.”