A glimpse of the past. 

A snapshot of the same destruction 40 years apart. 

Jeff Lantis, co-owner of The Sand Bar in Capitola, held up a photo of the 1982 Santa Cruz storm. The waves crashing against his restaurant back then were just as violent as they had been in the first weeks of this year.

Lantis walked through his restaurant, stepping over the torn-up floorboards and looking up at the caving support beams. His vibrant and lively restaurant had once again fallen victim to a devastating series of atmospheric rivers that began on Dec. 30.

“It’s shocking when you see your livelihood and how long it took for us to build all that up, but then to know that your income is taken away.”

— Jeff Lantis, co-owner of The Sand Bar in Capitola

Minna and Jeff Lantis own and operate The Sand Bar, one of several beloved restaurants in Capitola Village. Theirs was among the many businesses ravaged by the storm. Photo by Carolyn Mock.

In the past 40 years, Santa Cruz has faced worsening extreme weather events that have damaged thousands of homes and businesses like Lantis’. These aren’t new to Santa Cruz, and their patterns, although noticeable to the expert eye, fly under the general public’s radar.

As the air warms and deprives soil and vegetation of moisture, drought follows. Warmer air holds about seven percent more water per degree Celsius. This results in concentrated rain events that are unable to permeate parched soil, leaving the water to run into streets and surrounding rivers. 

Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at UC Santa Cruz Gary Griggs said that, although it seems counterintuitive, with rainier winters come hotter and drier summers.

“It makes it really hard for people like legislators and elected officials to say ‘well, wait a minute, now it’s dry, now it’s flooding. We don’t know what to do,” Griggs said. “Well, this is not unexpected, but it sure makes it hard to plan.”

It’s not just coastal Santa Cruz that was hit heavily by the storms.

UCSC fourth-year Ruby Franco lives near Felton and Bonny Doon. Thanks to Slug Support, she and her roommates were placed in the Mission Inn for a week when the storm conditions rendered their home unsafe.

“We went a few days without any basic utilities, so we would spend all day on campus using resources we could find and then drive back home to sleep,” Franco said. “Due to the severity of the storms in our area, our two routes into town were closed due to mudslides and other unsafe purposes [conditions].”

The term “weather whiplash” characterizes the jump from one weather extreme to another. The climate crisis accelerates the rate at which we see the seesaw between the two extremes, and exacerbates the feedback loop of further disaster. California saw a shift from drought to flooding in a matter of weeks, with more than 24 trillion gallons of water hitting the state as of Jan. 12. 

“All these extremes happening is going to make people want answers, want intervention, want something to happen,” said climate researcher Susanne Moser. “They may not want to call it climate change. It’s then a storm, or it’s a heatwave. They don’t want it necessarily to be about climate change, but they still want action, because suffering is happening.”

Jan. 14 — Storm wreckage in Capitola Village remain in the streets even after days of cleaning. The Capitola Pier, too, is storm-worn and demands repairs. Photos by Carolyn Mock.

The City’s Efforts on Climate Change

The City of Santa Cruz has been implementing a Climate Change Adaptation plan since 2011, outlining measures to incorporate climate change resilience into further city action. It also  released an updated assessment for 2018-2023 containing increased information on the extent to which the city can predict climate hazards. 

“Our water department has done quite a bit of cutting-edge work and kind of developed a decision support framework for ensuring reliability in terms of the coastline,” said Dr. Tiffany Wise-West, Sustainability and Climate Action Manager for the City of Santa Cruz. “About 50 percent of our coastline has been armored with either riprap, which are those big boulders or rocks, or sea walls or minor sea walls, and the city has really tried to maintain those.”

But despite city efforts, erosion has taken down parts of West Cliff Drive in the past weeks and will continue to do so as sea levels rise due to climate change. There is a $20 million plan in development to further armor West Cliff, but this may only be a stopgap fix for the coming years. 

“When we get to the coastline, there are not too many options. One is called denial. The sea level is not rising, we don’t have anything to do. There is what we have done historically, which is armor: seawalls and rock revetments. And we have to acknowledge that that can work. It’s very expensive, and at some point, we can’t build walls high enough to stop sea level rise,” Griggs said. ”There’s absolutely nothing we can do to stop the Pacific Ocean in the long term. So anything we do is temporary. The long-term solution is somehow we’ve got to figure out where and when to move back.”

Short-term preventative measures in the face of escalated climate change are the root cause of ongoing damage. 

“Managed retreat” away from the coast is the most stable solution on a long-term basis, but that migration can take decades and often faces pushback from local stakeholders. 

Santa Cruz County implemented and adapted Local Coastal Programs (LCPs), which include development codes for coastal homes and infrastructure that adhere to the California Coastal Act. There are further regulations that ensure infrastructure alignment with environmental research. However, the process of implementing policy regulation is too slow for climate change’s rapid progression. 

The problem is compounded for city governance when climate action includes economic, political, or social development. The median cost of a home in the county is $1,269,500. Property taxes account for just over $25 million of this year’s city’s $87 million budget. 

“When you have those very rich interests on the shorefront, it has an interesting impact on the economy of a community,” Moser said. ”Most communities get their biggest income from property taxes, so it’s great when you have these really big mansions in the front line. They pay the taxes, and so the local government actually has no interest in changing that.”  

There are still many uncertainties on the horizon regarding establishing long-term solutions and finding the funding to rebuild what has been lost. 

It is necessary to acknowledge not only the disaster but the conditions that brought about the destruction, and use that knowledge to take calculated action. 

Policy moves too slowly for environmental crises, but there is still time to take action and reduce the effects of the increasingly frequent and more extreme weather conditions. 

“None of us think our house is going to burn down, but we have fire insurance. Nobody thinks we’re gonna get in an automobile accident, but we have auto insurance because it does happen,” Griggs said. “And so that’s sort of the way with climate. Even if there’s some chance this is going to occur, you want to take some steps to try to minimize future losses.”