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More than 8,000 people in California were evacuated after a levee failed

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

California is getting more rain today, a lot of it. Parts of the state already drenched from record-setting rain are now under flood warnings, and residents are bracing for another downpour. Here's Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto in a recent press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TINA NIETO: Folks, we are not done yet. We are dealing with rain and wind events that I can only describe as a super soaker saturation event - #SuSoSat.

PFEIFFER: Rains are so heavy that one town on California's central coast, Pajaro, flooded over the weekend after a levee failed. More than 8,000 people were evacuated. John Laird is the state senator representing the area. He saw this coming, and he joins us now. And, Senator Laird, thank you for doing this very early, West Coast time, when I know you're dealing with a lot of other big issues. Thank you very much.

JOHN LAIRD: It's good to be with you.

PFEIFFER: I have been looking this morning at cellphone videos and TV footage and online images of people with sandbags, with cars submerged nearly to their hoods. Give us a sense of what the people in your district are dealing with.

LAIRD: Well, we had nine atmospheric rivers in January, and it led to highway closures, mudslides, big waves, just extensive damage up and down the Central Coast.

PFEIFFER: You have been concerned for quite some time that this area was particularly vulnerable. You saw this coming. You tried to do something about it. Explain what you tried to do and how that has not come through.

LAIRD: Actually, we successfully did something, and that is this levee system for the Pajaro River that flows down this agricultural valley at the coast was built 70 years ago without enough capacity to handle major storms. It just was built too small. And we worked really hard to fund a brand-new project that had the capacity, and the federal government came through with the Army Corps of Engineers and the support of Senators Padilla, Feinstein and Congress member Panetta.

And I did a bill in the state legislature that bought the entire local share out because it's a disadvantaged community, and they couldn't pay for the local share of tens of millions of dollars. And then they did tax themselves for the operations. This project is ready to actually be built. It's in the final stages. It was going to start in a year. And when we had the ceremony with Senator Padilla and others last fall, I said a version of I hope to God it doesn't rain before we get this built. And unfortunately, it has.

PFEIFFER: So this was a race against time, and this community lost that race.

LAIRD: Exactly. And just - it is so tragic. There are just hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people out of their homes. Many of them have no place to go. Sirens came on in the middle of the night when the levee broke. They only have the clothes on their back and what they were able to reach and carry immediately as they left.

PFEIFFER: Is there some kind of support you're hoping to still get more of from the federal or state governments?

LAIRD: Well, we're hoping to get the support to patch and to handle the situation. And this levee break has grown to a couple hundred yards, and they're working hard to patch it. They're dropping rocks. They're doing everything else. And the levee is stressed below Pajaro now 'cause a huge lake of water has been created, dammed by Highway 1 in the area. And there's quite likelihood the levee is going to breach in a second area and go back into the river. And we hope it's when the flows are low so it doesn't blow out the entire levee. So there is still some critical moments to pass in this crisis.

PFEIFFER: We hope that your hopes come true. Thank you very much for making time. This is California State Senator John Laird.

LAIRD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.