In the Deluged Mountains of Santa Cruz, Residents Cope With Compounding Disasters

In 2020, a wildfire burned through parts of the Santa Cruz mountains. Now, the Central California coast has been inundated by a string of atmospheric rivers. “It’s hard to live here right now,” says one resident.

A road washed away on North Main Street of Santa Cruz during atmospheric river in California, United States on March 10, 2023. Credit: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A road washed away on North Main Street of Santa Cruz during atmospheric river in California, United States on March 10, 2023. Credit: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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BOULDER CREEK, Calif.—Near the spot where a washed-out private road in the Santa Cruz mountains cut off access to her street, Rebekah Uccellini-Kuby gestured toward a painted wooden sign stuck in the earth. 

It had been over a month since a stream of storms inundated California, but Harmon Gulch Road, which leads to about a dozen homes, remained unpassable, split in half, with big pieces of pavement lying in a yawning crack in the earth.

 “We’re calling this our silver lining crossing, to try and remind people to look at the silver lining in all of this,” Uccellini-Kuby said. “We have community now.”

“How many people are buying into that?” replied a Santa Cruz County supervisor standing nearby, who had arrived to attend a meeting Uccellini-Kuby organized for the road’s residents.

Harmon Gulch residents Rebekah Uccellini-Kuby, Jeannette Kornher, and Katia Sussman (center) stand near the break in their road. Credit: Emma Foehringer Merchant
Harmon Gulch residents Rebekah Uccellini-Kuby, Jeannette Kornher, and Katia Sussman (center) stand near the break in their road. Credit: Emma Foehringer Merchant

Numerous atmospheric rivers, columns of vapor that can release heavy downpours when they make landfall, descended on the state from late December through mid-January. 

On the Central California coast, Santa Cruz businesses flooded and piers collapsed. Trees toppled over. Landslides spilled over roads in the mountains. 

The rains took out Harmon Gulch Road on Jan. 9, according to residents, when a culvert gave out under the road connecting Uccellini-Kuby and her neighbors to the outside world, isolating some residents and keeping others from returning to their homes, about 20 miles from the iconic Santa Cruz boardwalk on the coast.

In 2020, some of those same residents were evacuated during the CZU Lightning Complex, a large wildfire that burned nearly 1,500 structures and stopped a few miles from the houses on Harmon Gulch. When the rains hit this part of the state, the county was still processing more than 200 permits to rebuild homes that had burned.

In certain California communities, residents are coping with recurring disasters that at times arrive before recovery from the last one is complete. Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says residents can get stuck in a “cycle of recovery.” Climate change is expected to make the situation more difficult. In areas of overlap between wildfire and extreme rain, the threats are compounding. 

Climate scientists have said recent rains fit within California’s historic cycles of drought and big storms, and because the global average temperature has warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius, atmospheric rivers already transport more moisture. More warming will intensify atmospheric rivers in the future, research has found. Wildfires can leave scars vulnerable to washouts and burned soil can repel water like pavement. 


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In January, President Biden declared a federal emergency in California and approved funding for federal grants and loans to individuals in three counties, including Santa Cruz. Now Uccellini-Kuby, her neighbors and more than 25,000 other Californians are navigating federal disaster relief while trying to recover.   

Uccellini-Kuby worries about “disaster burnout.” This is the last time she said she’ll ask residents to make the roughly mile-long trek to the split in the road to meet with government officials. “It’s hard to see the point when nothing’s changed,” she said. “People are very frustrated.”

When the atmospheric rivers hit California, Harmon Gulch residents attempted to clear out branches and debris to make way for the rush of water. But ultimately, the water overwhelmed the culvert (Santa Cruz County estimates that the storms also damaged 15 to 20 publicly-owned culverts). The road failed. 

In February, residents who stayed put had been rationing propane and firewood for weeks. Like many in the Santa Cruz mountains, they rely on propane and water deliveries from trucks that couldn’t access the road. That means little heat in an area where temperatures can sink below freezing. Power has been intermittent and phone service is spotty. Access to emergency services is nonexistent. 

As a handful of residents gathered to await the meeting’s start, they discussed construction permits, their FEMA applications and who had electricity that day. One resident came from a sublet closer to the coast, others were staying in downtown Boulder Creek, the small mountain community where Harmon Gulch is located. They had decided to stay elsewhere because it’s too difficult to reach their homes. Others drove down from their houses on a UTV borrowed from a neighbor named Mark Bingham, a Boulder Creek resident who is also chief of the local fire department.   

Though they’re coping with floods, many residents are already thinking about the threat of California’s year-round fire season. On a state-produced map showing fire risk, the Santa Cruz mountains are shaded mostly in yellow and orange, indicating moderate to high risk, but there’s a cluster of red—very high risk—around Boulder Creek.  

“If a tree goes down and causes a fire, who’s going to be at fault for that, who’s going to pay that bill? Because we can’t get a fire truck down here,” said Kim Markey, a two-decade Harmon Gulch resident standing a few yards away from the culvert collapse and waiting for the meeting to begin. “If a pole goes down, we can’t even get a PG&E call.”

Because Harmon Gulch is a private road, residents are responsible for road repairs, which will cost between $130,000 and $160,000 plus permits, according to contractor bids solicited by residents. There were plans to install a temporary bridge (paid for by a nonprofit run by Uccellini-Kuby that’s funded in part by a tech angel investor) at some point after the meeting, while residents continued navigating what she calls “FEMA purgatory.” Homeowners can pool the funds they receive from the agency to fix the road.

Santa Cruz County has 600 miles of public roads and nearly 1,500 miles of “non-county maintained” roads. Other streets are also seeking repairs—Uccellini-Kuby says she’s spoken with those who live on several other roads who need help. 

She’s created a spreadsheet and a Facebook group to help organize them. Nearly 40 people have joined an online group focused on damaged private roads in the county, created by an employee of the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, one of a group of locally-managed conservation agencies in California. 

The issue extends beyond the county: After the Camp Fire in 2018, the mayor of Paradise, California, about 225 miles north of here, sued utility Pacific Gas & Electric to try to recoup funds for repairs on her private road and others, after exhausting other ways to seek funds for the construction.

Paradise lost 90 percent of its population in the year after the Camp Fire. Some may leave Santa Cruz, too. 

Spring Morgan-Ceron, who’s rented on Harmon Gulch for three years and lived in the mountains her whole life, has thought about moving away to escape the high housing prices. The storm hasn’t helped. After the washout she was staying at the hotel where she works. 

“It’s hard to live here right now,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of people leaving this year after the storms, but we shall see.”

Harmon Gulch Road in Santa Cruz County failed during recent storms, leaving residents cut off from the outside world. Credit: Emma Foehringer Merchant
Harmon Gulch Road in Santa Cruz County failed during recent storms, leaving residents cut off from the outside world. Credit: Emma Foehringer Merchant

Some who stay may not have the means to move elsewhere; housing prices all over California are steep, but in Boulder Creek the median housing price in January was $653,000, according to real estate company Redfin, compared to $1.8 million in the coastal Santa Cruz town of Capitola.

Markey and her husband built their home on Harmon Gulch. It’s their retirement fund, but sometimes she thinks about moving out of state. “I’ve looked at Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas,” she said. “But then again, they have tornadoes and other weather-related issues. So I don’t know.” Her husband wants to stay in California. 

Several Harmon Gulch residents, like Markey, have had applications approved for some funds from FEMA, and are appealing for more assistance. Others have been told their appeal letters didn’t upload properly. 

Jeannette Kornher, who runs a kitten rescue organization, arrived at the meeting with a cat named Grayson on a leash. She said her FEMA folder originally contained uploads from other Santa Cruz filers. 

At the meeting, a county official told the semi-circle assembled that residents typically have to file four FEMA appeals. Several of the gathered residents guffawed. The process has left Kornher frustrated; she says it can feel like the agency is trying to weed out those unwilling to keep filing applications. 

She hadn’t been home since Dec. 31, when she prepared for her New Year’s Eve festivities by packing up her dirty clothes hamper and gathering important documents like her deed and birth certificate. She thought she might have to stay in town for a couple days. 

When she left her home, it was already raining; storms had been dropping water on the region since Dec. 26. She planned to return home after the installation of the temporary bridge, but another atmospheric river was on the way, and she was still worried about getting stranded.  

Kornher said she’s not deterred by the disasters, though flood and fire has made her prepared to pack up important documents at a moment’s notice.

“There’s a chance of a natural disaster anywhere you go,” she said. “It’s just a matter of are you willing to go ahead and deal with the changes wherever it is that you go, and kind of being prepared for survival.”

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Uccellini-Kuby moved to Harmon Gulch from Sonoma County about three years ago. When she arrived, she didn’t think much about the threat of fire, despite past experience providing housing and connecting people with rentals after wildfires in Sonoma. A few months after she landed in Santa Cruz, she was doing the same for survivors of the Lightning Complex. Before the meeting on Harmon Gulch, Uccellini-Kuby was up in San Francisco, checking on a fire survivor that she’s housed. On her way to Boulder Creek, she stopped at Stanford Medical Center to visit someone else who had been living with her since he lost his home in the Lightning Complex. He was staying in a hotel in Palo Alto so he can access cancer treatment while the road remains impassable. 

Uccellini-Kuby’s experience in mutual aid is now being relied on once again as she helps neighbors navigate the thorny FEMA process. On the day of the meeting, she got good news: a local group planned to offer $40,000 for Harmon Gulch residents to pay for needs like hotel stays and firewood, which residents were using to heat their homes.

As the gathering stretched beyond an hour, a few uneven batches of raindrops hinted at storms forecast for later in the week. Residents intermittently glanced up at swaying redwood branches overhead, eyeing the potential for one to crash—what Markey calls a widowmaker. After nearly an hour and a half, the group disbanded. Some walked across the metal plates to hitch a ride on the UTV back to their homes. Others turned towards the two-lane country road to make their way back to town. Days later, another storm arrived. This time, it brought snow. 

“They keep saying this is the new normal,” Markey said. “This isn’t going to be the last time it’s going to happen—this is going to be a continuing issue for the people of California, period. It’s just going to be a way of life.”