Storm surf damaged a staircase west of the Capitola Wharf again in late December. (Jesse Kathan — Santa Cruz Local) 

SANTA CRUZ >> Huge surf and storm surges pummeled Santa Cruz County in late December, leaving at least $2.8 million in damages and prompting a county supervisor’s suggestion to consider “managed retreat” at frequently battered locations.

Estimated damages included:

  • $130,000 at Rio Del Mar and Seacliff state beaches, State Parks leaders said.
  • $2.5 million at county parks, including at Moran Lake Park in Pleasure Point and other coastal access points.
  • $250,000 in Capitola, including the Capitola Wharf and Cliff Drive. Stairs at the Capitola Wharf and other areas that had been repaired after storms in January 2023 again were damaged.

State authorities are expected to cover some of those costs, but owners of storm-damaged homes and businesses are not expected to receive money.

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Scientists said large storms are becoming more common as climate change makes conditions in coastal waters increasingly volatile.

“It’s really hard to say one specific event is driven by climate change,” said Andrea O’Neill, a U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer. “But looking at the climate projections, the types of high-wave events and storm-driven wave events do look like they’re going to be more frequent,” O’Neill said. 

Local emergency

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday declared a local emergency for damage related to storms and coastal flooding Dec. 28 and 30.

“This represents the third consecutive year where I’ve come before the board to ratify an emergency,” said Dave Reid, director of Santa Cruz County’s Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience. The damages aren’t substantial enough to warrant a federally-declared emergency, he said. Homeowners and businesses with damage aren’t expected to be eligible for FEMA grants or loans from the Small Business Administration.

During the storms, surges in some coastal areas sent seawater more than 5 feet higher than where king tide levels were predicted. Waves taller than 20 feet broke at some Santa Cruz County beaches, Reid said. 

A fence at Moran Lake County Park that was repaired after January 2023 storms was again flattened.

At Tuesday’s meeting, County Supervisor Justin Cummings said county leaders and residents may need to “start having serious conversations around managed retreat” in areas with repeated storm damage. State and federal agencies that provide disaster assistance may not want the county to rebuild “something that we know is just going to get destroyed over and over again,” Cummings said.

The Capitola Wharf sustained further damage in storms in late December 2023.

Big surf in late December delayed repairs to the Capitola Wharf. (Jesse Kathan — Santa Cruz Local) 

Capitola damage

Capitola Wharf was being repaired from a January 2023 storm that tore it in half when storms in late December further damaged it.

Repairing lost piles and decking will add 6-8 weeks to repairs, said Jessica Khan, Capitola director of public works. The repaired wharf is expected to be wider, stronger and better able to withstand unruly swells.

The tidal surge also wiped out part of the wooden stairs to Hooper Beach west of the pier, which had been replaced following the January 2023 storms.

“This is not the first or second or third time that we’ve lost the stairway,” Khan said during a city council meeting. The city is considering rebuilding the stairs with concrete or another material that can better withstand storms, Khan said. 

Two apartments at the Capitola Venetian Hotel were severely damaged. Occupants won’t be allowed to move back in until after repairs, she said. Multiple businesses in Capitola Village had minor damage.

Water damaged two units at the Capitola Venetian Hotel in late December. (Jesse Kathan — Santa Cruz Local) 

At Rio Del Mar and Seacliff state beaches, temporary fences erected for January 2023 storm repairs were damaged. 

State Parks leaders hired cleanup crews to gather and chip logs swept onto the beach, said Public Safety Superintendent Gabe McKenna. A State Parks study to be published this year is expected to include options for how New Brighton and Seacliff state beaches could adapt to sea-level rise.

Climate connection

December’s storms and those in January 2023 are part of a pattern of heightened coastal volatility, scientists have said.

Climate change is shifting global storm patterns, said O’Neill, the U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer. Storms and waves that otherwise would have been partly deflected by shores north of Monterey Bay are more frequently heading into the bay unimpeded, some bringing large waves and tidal surges. Although it’s not certain whether these storms are becoming more powerful, they are becoming more frequent.

People often see coastal flooding as “a freak event,” said Gary Griggs, a UC Santa Cruz coastal scientist. “This combination of high tides and big waves is something we can’t be in denial about or forget about. Those are the kinds of things we’ll probably see more often in the future.”

On West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, city leaders are considering replacing a two-lane road with a one-way road or a trail for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s part of a potential strategy of managed retreat from part of the shoreline that has faced repeated storm damage and constant erosion. Similar conversations may have to happen throughout the county, Griggs said.

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow | + posts

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.