My Experience of Being Stuck in the California Floods of January 2023

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The Capitola Wharf in Santa Cruz County was one of the casualties of California Storms and floods in January 2023
The Capitola Wharf in Santa Cruz County was one of the casualties of California Storms and floods in January 2023

As a traveller, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of California. However, in January 2023, my trip to California took an unexpected turn. The Golden State experienced severe flooding in many regions, and unfortunately, my Central Coast Road trip coincided with the floods, and I had to change my travel plans accordingly. You can read more about that in my previous blog post. I will share what I witnessed during the California floods in this article.

Although California is no stranger to natural disasters, the floods in January 2023 were terrible. A sequence of nine atmospheric rivers hammered California during a three-week period in January 2023, bringing over 700 landslides, power outages affecting more than 500,000 people and causing financial damages now expected to exceed $30 billion. The floods in California in 2023 were a result of heavy rainfall from December 31, 2022, to January 25, 2023, in a small time window – 400% to 600% above average in that time – caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks, leading to severe flooding in many parts of the state. Most impacted were parts of Southern California, the California Central Coast, Northern California, and Nevada. From north to south in the Golden State this week, flooding, mudslides, or threats have led to evacuations, road closures, and desperate rescues. In the first ten days of January, at least 20 people died in California storms and flooding — more than the number of civilians who died in wildfires in the last two years.

Some of the worst affected cities that I happened to experience first-hand were Santa Cruz, San Jose, Monterey, Paso Robles, and Oxnard. In this article, let me share what I witnessed during the California floods.

Flooding In San Jose

San Jose, the largest city in Silicon Valley, was one of the areas heavily affected by the California floods. The floods caused significant damage to the city’s infrastructure, with roads and highways washed out, homes lost power, and major roadways turned into impassable rivers leading to school closures and limited mobility exacerbated by fallen trees and mudslides. High winds gusting to nearly 50 miles per hour, accompanied by heavy rain and thunderstorms, battered Santa Clara county. 

The Guadalupe River, which runs through the city, was flowing to its brink, and there was a significant fear of damaging the nearby homes, businesses, and roads. At least eight Santa Clara County roads were closed. 

Due to torrential rainfall, I couldn’t get out for days. Restaurants closed early, and food deliveries were unavailable. Those without cars could not even get to nearby stores. The entire city was dull, and there were flood warnings everywhere. I was stranded in my apartment, and it was impossible to move around.

Flooding In Santa Cruz

Similarly, Santa Cruz, a coastal city in Central California, was one of the hardest hit by the floods. The town experienced significant damage to its infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and buildings. The city’s downtown area was also heavily affected, with many shops and restaurants forced to close their doors temporarily. When I was there, I was confined to my hotel Dream Inn as there was a major flood warning. The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was closed, and part of the scenic 3-Mile Drive was washed out. 

One of the most notable landmarks affected by the floods in Santa Cruz was the iconic Capitola Wharf. The wharf, a popular spot for fishing and recreation for over a century, was severely damaged by the flooding and is now unusable for at least a year. The Capitola Wharf was a beloved icon in the community, and its destruction has been deeply felt by locals and visitors alike. The wharf had been a gathering place for generations of families, who would come to fish, picnic, and enjoy the beautiful views of the coastline.

The damage to the wharf is just one example of the extensive destruction caused by the floods in Santa Cruz. Many homes and businesses in the area were also severely impacted, with some entirely destroyed by the flooding.

Flooding In Monterey Bay

Monterey County, the scenic coastal area about 100 miles south of San Francisco that includes Big Sur and the famed golf courses of Pebble Beach, too was heavily impacted by California flooding that almost transformed the Monterey Peninsula into an island. The towns of Carmel, Monterey and Pacific Grove are also at risk of being isolated from the rest of the county. Highways 1 and 68 were the most vulnerable to flooding from the Salinas River. More than 17,000 residents living in low-lying areas near the river were ordered to evacuate, and six emergency shelters were set up for evacuees.

The city’s famous Cannery Row area was inundated by seawater. Many of the historic buildings in the area suffered damage, and there were concerns about the impact on the city’s tourism industry. 

All sea adventures were closed, including my anticipated whale-watching tour, but as they say – better safe than sorry. 

Here’s a video about the flooding in Monterey County, California:

Flooding In Paso Robles

Further inland, Paso Robles experienced severe flooding, with the Salinas River overflowing its banks and causing widespread damage to homes and businesses. Within 24 hrs, over 2 inches of rain and flooding caused major mayhem in Paso Robles. The flooding also disrupted transportation in the area, with many roads closed due to high water levels, including the Northbound and southbound Highway 101, 10th street, 13th street, San Marcos Road etc. Adelaida Road, Nacimiento Lake Drive and Peachy Canyon Road were all flooded and were in a mess. I had planned a trip to Robert Hall Vineyards for months, but I had to cut short my trip to just wine tasting as the vineyard had into a mud and slush pool. Also, despite the reduced flood warnings and rain subsiding, it took work to traverse the county roads. I had to take so many detours to reach Pasolivo Olive farms and Ranch. Usually, the walkable Paso Robles downtown wore such a deserted look, and I had to rush from one outlet to another to avoid getting rain-soaked.

Flooding In Oxnard, Ventura County

Finally, Oxnard, located on the coast, was hit hard by the floods, with the Ventura River overflowing and causing significant damage to homes and businesses in the area. The city’s agricultural industry was also affected, with many farms and fields submerged underwater. The county had not seen this kind of water in the last 28 years. The banks of the creek at Foster Park broke due to overflowing water, flooding picnic areas and hiking trails. Ventura Pier was closed to protect the public from the upcoming storms. 

The 101 Freeway was fully closed between State Route 33 in Ventura County and State Route 150 in Santa Barbara County due to flooding on January 10 2023. Even State Route 126 was closed as a mudslide hit the area, trapping several vehicles, including a big rig.

The hotel where I stayed, Zacchary Dunes, had water seeping into its parking lot and elevator. The beaches looked dirty and filled with debris. All the sea tours to the Channel Islands were called off due to heavy rainfall, rough sea and poor visibility.

Overall, being stuck in Ventura County could have been a better time. 

Reason for California Floods

The floods in California in 2023 were caused by a combination of factors, including heavy rainfall and melting snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Climate change is also believed to have played a role, with rising temperatures leading to more intense rainfall events. As per an article published in Yale Climate Connections, Climate change has already doubled the risk of a California megaflood. And an additional 1°C of global warming would double the odds again. From December 2022 to January 2023, California’s weather abruptly switched from extreme drought to extreme flooding. 

What next?

The aftermath of the floods in California in January 2023 was a stark reminder of the importance of emergency preparedness and response. Many communities were left without power or access to clean water, and thousands of people were displaced. Hopefully, the lessons learned from this disaster will help improve California’s ability to respond to future emergencies.

In conclusion, the floods in California in January 2023 were a significant natural disaster that affected many cities and communities across the state. Despite the severe devastation caused by the floods, there were some silver linings. Communities came together to support one another, and there were countless acts of kindness and generosity in the aftermath of the disaster. During these difficult times, we realize the importance of standing together and helping each other. The floods may have caused significant damage, but the Californian people’s resilience and strength have helped them bounce back. As California continues to face the challenges of climate change and other natural disasters, it is essential that we remain vigilant and prepared for whatever the future may hold.

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