The people affected by the storms and floods that occurred between Dec. 31, 2022 and March 11, 2023 have filed two lawsuits against the counties of Monterey and Santa Cruz, as well as the flood management agencies in those counties, along with the City of Watsonville and the California Department of Transportation, alleging they did not take the proper measures to stop the damages caused by those disasters.
The lawsuits allege that the defendants allowed the flood control systems of the lower Pajaro River watershed to remain in a “state of complete disrepair,” even after 10 flood events that occurred throughout the decades since the levee system was built in 1949.
More than 500 plaintiffs are named in the lawsuits, from both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. This includes property owners, renters and business owners. They were filed by Los Angeles-based Kabatek LLP, and El Segundo-based Greenberg and Ruby Injury Attorneys.
“One of the most tragic parts about this is that the same thing happened decades ago, should have been fixed, should have been prevented, this was absolutely foreseeable and preventable,” said attorney Emily Ruby, whose family lives in the Royal Oaks area.
The lawsuits took shape after the March 11 flood, during an informal community meeting—during which no more than 15 people were expected—which instead drew more than 70, Ruby said.
“We just realized there was a huge need for help in that area,” she said.
Governmental officials and agencies typically do not comment on pending litigation. As of press time Thursday, none had responded to requests for comment.
Ruby said the attorneys are seeking financial compensation for their clients that includes their losses, and for emotional damages.
“We want to obtain justice for our clients, and for the community as a whole,” she said. “We want to have them compensated financially for all their damages and all their losses.”
The trouble began on New Year’s Eve 2022, when an atmospheric river storm swept through the Central Coast, swelling rivers and streams.
The creeks of Corralitos and Salsipuedes overtopped their banks, sending flood water into several Watsonville neighborhoods, and filling many homes with mud and leaving residents with unlivable houses and hefty repair bills.
The rains continued, and the situation came to a head on March 11, when parts of the Pajaro River levee broke away and flooded the town of Pajaro. Hundreds were displaced, and businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed.
“The community was completely shell-shocked and obviously devastated by what happened,” Ruby said. “And there was no immediate response or support for them by the government entities who were responsible for this, and should have been jumping to be proactive about taking care of them.”
At the heart of the lawsuit is the assertion that after flood events in 1955, 1958, 1982, 1986, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2017 and 2018—and a major one in 1995—state and local officials should have been prepared to lessen or prevent the 2023 flood.
By the early 1990s, the lawsuit alleges, the Pajaro Flood Control Project reached an “unprecedented state of disrepair,” which heightened flood risks.
“This never should have happened in 1995, and it never should have happened after 1995,” Ruby said. “We really want to make sure that this never happens again, that this community is never victimized again.”