A massive tree fell on electricity wires Tuesday, blocking a key segment of Highway 9 north of Felton—hampering motorists and affecting businesses in the area. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

Jorge Ibarra was a couple days away from his 45th birthday when he left the tent where he lives above the San Lorenzo River to go skateboarding. The decision may have saved his life—just a short while later, a giant tree snapped and collapsed on his camp.

“They said I left an hour before it fell,” he said, adding despite being struck by a truck a few days prior, he’s been trying to persevere. “I still keep going.”

Ibarra is just one of the many local residents who have experienced trials and near-misses during the latest storm system to wallop the Central Coast.

It may not have left the same level of devastation as the headline-grabbing floods in the Watsonville area that brought Gov. Gavin Newsom to the region Wednesday, but it shut down Highway 9 just north of Felton for hours and left plenty of headaches for homeowners.

Just down the hill from Ibarra’s camp, in a tent covered in a blue tarp, 52-year-old Shelley (who declined to give her last name citing her involvement in a court proceeding), recalled the terror at hearing the trunk snap, which she said occurred Saturday morning.

“It scared the s— out of me,” she said. “I thought it was getting ready to come down the hill.”

She says the muddy terrain has made going anywhere extremely difficult, given that she’s blind and on crutches.

“Oh God, is it gonna hit my tent?” she remembers praying when the tree fell. “Lord, you can’t let me die. You just made me blind five years ago.”

During the earlier storms this year, her campsite was too close to the river, she says.

“I was down there by the turnout,” she said. “Everything got washed away.”

She says she hopes people will bring practical supplies directly to the new campsites that have sprung up at the base of the San Lorenzo River Valley, such as 1x or 2x clothing sizes.

Patricia Birgara, 45, says she’s considering staying at the developing homeless encampment nestled in along Highway 9, at the point where it begins ascending into the Santa Cruz Mountains.

She says she wants to be there to help people, particularly those suffering from substance abuse issues, when they’re experiencing moments of crisis.

“I really worry about everyone,” Birgara said, adding it’s tough to deal with heavy rains. “It’s not as fun as they think it is.”

On Monday, Alvaro Padilla, 52, who lives in the Gold Gulch neighborhood of Felton was told to evacuate.

It turned out he didn’t need to, because the San Lorenzo River didn’t rise as high as some had feared it would. But on Tuesday afternoon, strong winds knocked a tree down in his driveway.

“Thankfully, my car is not severely damaged,” he said. “It could always be worse.”

Justin McIvor trims branches off a fallen tree in the Gold Gulch neighborhood of Felton. (Drew Penner/Press Banner)

As the rain continued to fall, he began to dispose of the bay tree branches. His 52-year-old neighbor, Justin McIvor, was doing the same.

“It’s just part of living in the forest,” he said, noting he’d opted not to evacuate, either.

Both said they would have left had it seemed the river really was going to be a threat. However, the storm system wasn’t without consequence.

Just north of town, a massive tree had fallen on electricity wires, blocking a key segment of Highway 9, hampering motorists and affecting business sales to the north.

A Davey Tree official said, though the road had been closed since the morning, it wasn’t safe for PG&E to deal with the problem until the evening.

By Wednesday, Highway 9 had been reopened to one-way traffic; vehicles were backed-up all the way to the Glen Arbor Road detour, which remained in place following an earlier landslide.

Chris Camperi, whose mom, Jan, owns Towne and Country Antiques and Uniques in Ben Lomond, said it’s been challenging to handle the continued bad weather.

“Lately, with the storms and stuff, we’ve just been shutting down,” he said. “The Highway 9 closure is hurting all the businesses.”

It’s not the rain that concerns them that much, he explained.

“Unless you’re in a flood area, the rain’s not a major effect other than the mudslides,” he said. “We’re used to the rain, because we’ve been up here for 50 years. We’ve had the store for 30. It has just slowly cycled away from the rain, and now it seems to be coming back.”

Camperi says it’s been tough on his mom.

“Well, it’s depressing,” he said. “And we haven’t been open a lot because of it. And that hurts business, too, because (customers) come and you’re not open. But we plan on being open regularly—Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.”

Camperi said he hadn’t been considering applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency ahead of the March 16 deadline.

Tiana Suber, a FEMA spokesperson, noted claims would have to pertain to December-January storms. There would have to be another federal disaster declared for people to file claims related to more recent damage, she said.

“If the current emergency declaration becomes a federally declared one, survivors can apply for the new declaration with a new registration number,” Suber said.

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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