Credit: Twitter / California Department of Water Resources
The town of Pajaro flooded when a levee holding back the Pajaro River breached on March 10.

California’s 11th atmospheric river storm, whose stiff winds and pelting rain downed electric lines, churned mudslides and sent rivers and streams over their banks, also shut down at least 178 schools serving 102,000 students, the California Department of Education reported.

Wednesday’s total may include additional schools, once the closure numbers are in from Southern California, which felt the tail end of the storm into Wednesday.

As much as six inches of rain were expected in the foothills of the San Bernardino and Santa Ana mountains. Flood watches were in effect Tuesday night from the Moreno Valley to Huntington Beach. About 336,000 electric customers in the state were without power Tuesday evening.

Central California coastal areas were walloped the hardest and shuttered most schools: 76 schools enrolling just shy of 50,000 students in Monterey County and 46 schools with 21,300 students in Santa Barbara County.

Schools were closed in 18 counties, including one school each in five counties: Alpine, El Dorado, Fresno, Mariposa and Placer.

The school closure total was likely greater because reporting to the Emergency Services Team of the state education department is voluntary; most districts do update daily, said Abel Guillen, state Deputy Superintendent in charge of the Operations and Administration Branch.

Heavy snowfall and road closures in the Sierra didn’t keep schools closed this week, however.  Lake Tahoe Unified has been open all week, with a two-hour delay on Monday. Tahoe Truckee Unified delayed the beginning of school for two hours Wednesday because of a 10-truck accident, but reopened classes later despite the closure of Interstate 80, which kept staff members commuting to work from Reno from getting to work.

On Tuesday, some schools in the district were closed because the amount of snow on roofs was unsafe, other schools moved the students to other facilities in the community.

Schools and communities in the Central Valley, particularly foothill communities and those directly downstream, were hit hard by flooding, mud flows, washed out roads, power outages and water main line breaks that prompted some schools to shut down.

“The amount of debris and the power from the sheer volume of water is something I’ve never seen before,” said Jeff Ramsay, director of general services for the Tulare County Office of Education.

The worst-hit is Three Rivers School District, a district with a 120-student school up in the foothills. It has been closed since Friday. Waters rushing down the mountain have brought mud flows into classrooms and created sinkholes. The district is aiming to bring students back on Thursday, depending on whether the district can get bottled water and other services, Ramsay said. The Sequoia Union Elementary School, a TK-8 school in Lemon Cove, an unincorporated area, was also closed on Wednesday but expects to reopen Thursday.

Spring break has eased some of the problems. Saucelito Elementary School, in Terra Bella, also in Tulare County, closed when a nearby creek flooded, and the district is looking into using facilities at a neighboring district currently on spring break, Ramsay said.

Residents located near a spillway in Porterville have been evacuated, but nearby schools are on spring break.

Working with the National Weather Service and the California Department of Water Resources, the Emergency Services Team had identified 499 schools, many in the Central Valley, that were vulnerable to flooding. The team worked with districts to have evacuation plans in place with measures to protect buildings, said Jake Wolf, staff services manager for the Emergency Services Team. The team has been in operating for three years and cut its teeth responding to wildfires in 2021.

The 17,000 student Pajaro Valley Unified in Watsonville, which straddles Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, temporarily closed all 28 of its schools on Tuesday, due road closures and heavy winds. The streams and rivers that have turned the Salinas Valley into the “breadbasket of the world,” also made it prone to widespread flooding.

All schools reopened Wednesday except one, Pajaro Middle School. It, like most of the unincorporated town of Pajaro, remains partly submerged since Friday night, when a 100-ft, section of a levee holding back the Pajaro River broke and since has widened.

For the rest of the year, Pajaro Middle students will attend Lakeview Middle School. It is near the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where several hundred Pajaro residents are sheltering. Construction crews set up walls for new classrooms this week, and the school has room to accommodate the new students. Rodriguez said she expects that some parts of Pajaro Middle School will need to be rebuilt.

School districts that closed schools because of natural emergencies can apply for waivers from the 180-day school year and lost revenue from absences. Rodriguez said that the Pajaro Valley Unified will use the 20-day summer school to make up for lost time.

Many of the 2,000 Pajaro residents, who include 900 students, fled early Saturday, some by boat. Many are farmworker families who will not be allowed back in for weeks and then may find that many of the homes may be condemned.

They may find themselves out of work, too. Flooding imperils the spring crop of strawberries, raspberries, lettuce and broccoli.

Credit: Twitter / California Department of Water Resources

The town of Pajaro flooded when a levee holding back the Pajaro River breached on March 10.

For now, along with the fairgrounds, some Pajaro families are living in the Watsonville Veterans Memorial Building and temporary shelters in Monterey County.

Officials have long known for years that the 70-year-old earthen level was in peril. It was on the list for reconstruction, but the Army Corps of Engineers continued to push it down the list of projects because the housing for the low-income families and surrounding farmland had a high cost-to-value ratio, Santa Cruz County officials said.

“It would be hard to find a better example of federal discrimination in flood funding than this region,” Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The weather service is forecasting another Pacific storm could descend on California early next week, although it’s early to project what part of the state will feel the brunt.

EdSource writers Diana Lambert and Emma Gallegos contributed to this article. 

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