Residents Warned to Brace for Repeat Flood

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 26, 2023

Crews prepare to blast and reduce large rocks near the San Luis Obispo/Monterey County line on Highway 1 on March 11, 2023. 

On the 28th anniversary of the biggest flood in town history and two months after the worst flooding this century, the City of Morro Bay was warning residents to brace for a repeat.

But the feared devastation didn’t happen, at least not to the degree of the big Jan. 8-9 storm. Morro Creek once again became a danger when runoff swelled the creek and overflowed into the Silver City and Silver City West MHPs located adjacent to Morro Creek and left a muddy mess at several Main Street businesses when the waters receded.

The flooding ran through the park fairly quickly causing some damage and leading to the evacuation warning by the City of Morro Bay especially for homes sitting above the creek bank.

“Due to the rising waters and heavy rain,” reads a March 10 news alert from the City fire department, “an evacuation warning is in place for residents of Silver City RV Park and Silver City West RV Park, and an evacuation order for residents within those parks whose homes back up directly to Morro Creek.”

The Rodeway Inn, which is a few blocks north on Main Street, offered discounted rooms for Silver City evacuees in the final days before the motel closes and becomes a drug and alcohol rehab center.

March 10 Dropped 1.65”

Fire Capt. Scott Subler told Estero Bay News that the March 10 storm dropped 1.65-inches of rain (total for March was 2.12” as of March 13). He noted that the same area flooded as in the January storm but it didn’t last as long. 

“It was just too much water,” he said. “That area is at a choke point where Little Morro Creek and Morro Creek come together. There’s just too much water.”

In the March 10 storm, the creek waters rose up threatening a repeat of January’s disaster but the rainstorm blew over quicker than anticipated. But there was another even bigger storm predicted for Tuesday, March 11.

The City also warned residents against taking any unnecessary trips in the car during what was being called an “atmospheric river” effect storm. 

Why So Much Rain?

The winter of 2022-23 will go down in history as one of the wettest owing to a naturally-occurring weather phenomenon — an “atmospheric river.”

“Atmospheric rivers,” according to the National Oceanic and atmospheric Administration’s or NOAA’s website, “are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere — like rivers in the sky — that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. These columns of vapor move with the weather, carrying an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow.”

In California these atmospheric rivers are known as “The Pineapple Express” because the winds blow easterly from Hawaii picking up tropical moisture along the way and delivering it to the land, sometimes stalling over certain areas and dumping extreme amounts of rain and snow, as we’ve seen in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and especially at Big Bear Mountain in San Bernardino County. 

More than a dozen people have died after Big Bear was cut off from the rest of the world by the blizzard.

No Injuries in Morro Bay

Fire Capt. Subler said there were no injuries from the March 10 storm nor any fatalities reported. He said the police department went down before the storm and advised people living outdoors along the creeks and even under the Main Street bridge to evacuate.

He said the City did a good job of keeping the water flowing through the Morro Creek channel, under Main Street and Hwy 1. And yet, still it flooded and was predicted to flood again. 

Coupled with the tides, the City was predicting a lot of water was coming on March 14. “A heavy band of rain is expected to arrive in the late morning/midday Friday,” the news release issued by the fire chief said, “coinciding with a high tide of 3.22-feet at 12:15 p.m.”

The City issued a flash flood warning March 10 until 1 p.m. and a flood watch warning until 4 a.m. Saturday, March 11.

Several local roads were closed including the center section of Main Street from Radcliff to Atascadero Road and South Bay Boulevard was again closed. Others included:

• Lower State Park Road through Morro Bay State Park;

• Quintana Road from just south of South Bay Boulevard to Hwy 1;

• Main Street between Errol Street (at Taco Bell) and the Hwy 1 on and off ramps (at Main Street); and,

• South Bay from Quintana to Santa Ysabel (Los Osos).

Also on March 10, Caltrans closed Hwy 1 through Morro Bay from Morro Bay Boulevard to the traffic light at San Jacinto Street. It was reopened later that same day when the worst of the storm had passed.

Clean Up to Wait

The closure on Main Street didn’t last long as the City Public Works Director Greg Kwolek reported the street would be reopened on Saturday (March 11). But the cleanup along that troublesome stretch of road would have to wait.

“The City is suspending cleanup efforts on Preston Lane and Errol Street,” Kwolek said,  “until the next major storm, expected on Tuesday, March 14, passes. This cleanup will resume when the rain stops, either on Wednesday or Thursday, and will require another Main Street closure due to the mobilization of heavy equipment along Main Street.”

He promised to issue another news release when the street was going to be closed.

Hwy 1 Closed Again

But while Main Street in Morro Bay may have gotten off easy, the same can’t be said for Hwy 1 through Big Sur, which Caltrans once again closed just days after reopening it up to Ragged Point.

“After overnight storms,” Caltrans spokeswoman Alexa Bertola said, “crews began at first light to assess the roadway and reported dozens of areas affected by slides, rock fall, and water coursing across the road.”

Caltrans closed Hwy 1 starting at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery on the southern end and north to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn in Monterey County. That’s roughly 120-miles or about two hours of drive time that’s now closed. At Ragged Point, they’d just gotten Hwy 1 reopened after a big slide closed the roadway in January.

Hwy 1 at “Polar Star” about a mile south of Ragged Point as closed Jan. 4 by a rockslide that covered the roadway, destabilized a hillside, and forced the closure for more than a month. 

Hwy 1 A Mess

There’s a ton of work to be done on the scenic highway. “At the southern end of the closure area,” Caltrans’ Bertola said, “crews still must clean up miles of slide material in addition to moving a large boulder from the roadway just south of the county line. Plugged culverts also need to be cleared where water is crossing over and down the highway.”

Caltrans released a video of a ginormous boulder — the size of an SUV — that had come down in a slide and was partially blocking the roadway. Caltrans had to break out the dynamite. 

“Blasting crews were called in to reduce large rocks at two locations on either side of the San Luis Obispo/Monterey County line,” Bertola said. “At one of these sites [at Post Marker 0.8 in Monterey County], a temporary signal has been in place and repairs were already being made to a slip out below the southbound travel lane. This location continues to experience significant slide activity as a result of the most recent storms.”

The excessive rains have caused water to spring forth where it never has before. “Crews responded to new slide and rock fall events throughout the day,” Bertola said. “Waterfalls have appeared at new locations and the soil throughout the coast remains saturated.”

Mud Creek Sliding Again

And our old friend Mud Creek — which in May 2017 produced the largest landslide in California history closing Hwy 1 for a year — continues to be a problem.

“At Mud Creek [PM 8.8],” Bertola said, “a boulder the size of a shipping container is perched in the netting above the roadway with crews assessing how best to approach its removal. Considerable slide material continued to accumulate across the roadway [PM 29.5], as well as at Anderson Canyon [PM 35.3].”

And further up Hwy 1 at the Monterey-Santa Cruz County line, Caltrans closed Hwy 1 after the Pájaro River overflowed its banks, swamping farmlands, overflowing farm levees and flooding the little town of Pájaro, which is across the river from Watsonville.

Caltrans was planning to reopen the highway on March 16 after work crews worked overnight to clear the roadway.

Cambria Warned of Flooding

And in Cambria, the County issued flood warnings for the areas along Santa Rosa Creek starting about Bridge Street in the East Village into the West Village, which was where Cambria flooded back in March 1995.

In a March 10 evacuation order from SLO County, the areas affected were north of Santa Rosa Creek, west of Bridge Street, south of Main Street, and east of Cambria Drive.

The County established a temporary evacuation point at Santa Rosa Catholic Church, 1174 Main St, Cambria.

And the Red Cross set up an evacuation shelter at Cal Poly’s Crandall Gym (by the football stadium) during the storm. 

Road information and updates can be found on Caltrans Dist. 5 Social Media platforms: Twitter at: @CaltransD5, Facebook at: Caltrans Central Coast (District 5) and Instagram at: Caltrans_D5.

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