Astonishing before and after satellite photos show California towns swallowed by floods

An aerial view of a flooded town, with roads and yards covered with brown water
The majority of Pajaro, Calif., just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville, Calif., was submerged by floodwaters after the river levee breached the night of March 10, 2023.
(Shmuel Thaler / Santa Cruz Sentinel via Associated Press)

As yet another storm brings rain to a soaked state, new photos show the effect of floodwaters on two of California’s hardest-hit communities.

A levee failure on the Pajaro River in Monterey County triggered massive flooding and prompted hundreds of evacuations and dozens of water rescues.

The levee — three miles upstream from the town of Pajaro — breached the night of March 10, said Nicholas Pasculli, a Monterey County spokesperson. Patrols noticed water “bubbling up in the adjacent farmland” at 11 p.m., the first sign there was a problem.


Pajaro, a farming town of about 3,000 residents, saw hundreds displaced by flooding and shelters filled up. Volunteers went to work there and in nearby Watsonville helping those in need.

The image below shows what Pajaro and surrounding fields looked like before and after the flood. On March 15, brown floodwater inundates a large swath of land.

Officials had long known that the area could flood, but plans to fix the levee never came to fruition.

“It’s a low-income area. It’s largely farmworkers that live in the town of Pajaro,” Stu Townsley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region, told The Times. “Therefore, you get basically Bay Area construction costs, but the value of property isn’t all that high.”

The area was long marginalized. On a tour of Pajaro, Gov. Gavin Newsom said “historically, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors never paid any attention to Pajaro. And that was intentional.”


Two hundred miles away in Central California, the larger town of Porterville also experienced serious flooding.

Residents on both sides of the Tule River were ordered to evacuate last week as levels rose at Lake Success, sending water over the spillway at Schafer Dam.

The photos below, taken 10 days apart, show what occurred after Lake Success swelled and sent sediment-rich brown water into the Tule River, which overflowed into low-lying areas.

Johanna Morales, 32, waded through waist-high water last week with family members in a desperate attempt to save what she could from her rented home near the Tule River in Porterville.

When considering what her next steps might be, she broke down in tears, glancing toward her children, who waited in a truck down the street. “I don’t know what to do,” she said.

Times staff writers Ruben Vives, Susanne Rust, Brittny Mejia, Hayley Smith and Liam Dillon contributed to this report.