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Mud, mold, and destruction: California businesses face catastrophic damage

<i>Ali Jansen</i><br/>The street outside Frame Works
Ali Jansen
The street outside Frame Works

By Parija Kavilanz, CNN

At the end of a long wooden California pier that juts out above the Pacific ocean sits the Wharf House. It’s now almost entirely unreachable.

The Wharf House restaurant, an iconic establishment for the residents in the seaside town of Capitola in Santa Cruz County, sits alone, boarded up, damaged, with an uncertain future. There’s a large gaping hole near the middle of the pier, caused by unrelenting rain and waves that thrashed against the aging wood in recent days.

Owner Willie Case, 82, hasn’t been to his beloved restaurant since the night of January 4. He’s owned it for 35 years.

“I don’t know how much damage had occurred. I’ve not been able to get to it,” he said.

Powerful winter storms have unleashed heavy rain, wind, flooding and dangerous mudslides the likes of which California hasn’t seen in decades. The fury had catastrophic consequences for many home and business owners.

The persistent storms across California after years-long drought have put tens of millions of residents under life-threatening flood, mudslide and evacuation watches.

The rains arrived to the parched West Coast in early November and haven’t let up. Much of California is getting rainfall totals that are 400% to 600% above average. As thousands have fled their homes, the extreme weather has upended lives and businesses.

On a typical sunny California day, a stroll along the 900-foot long Capitola pier through sea breeze and under a cloudless sky is as much a treat to diners as the ocean in front and the quaint beachfront village behind it.

Families regularly come to the Wharf House to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner and live music on its upper deck.

It’s now shrouded in darkness. Case said furious waves tore out 30 to 40 feet of the pier.

“Eight support pilings were lost in the raging water. We don’t know if the water came up through the floor of the restaurant because we can’t see anything,” he said.

He’s hoping a break in the storms will allow him to use drones to get a closer picture to access the full extent of the damage. “The only other way to get to it is by boat. The way the waves are beating down on the shoreline right now, I can’t do that,” said Case.

As he waits and hopes for the best, he worries about what repairs to his business and the pier will entail.

“Repair isn’t simple. It’s already unstable and you’ll need cranes to restore the pilings. It will take time and a lot of money,” he said. Case had difficulty getting liability insurance. “It won’t cover a business that’s over water, particularly in the event of an ‘act of God,'” he said.

Businesses digging out

About 5 million people were under flood watches Wednesday as yet another atmospheric river brings more rain to California.

The flood watches are primarily in Northern and Central California, including Sacramento, the North Bay and Redding and threaten to compound an already difficult situation for residents grappling with their flood-ravaged neighborhoods.

Sam DeNicola, 30, is hoping for the best in the days ahead as he and his employees clean up Bread Bike bakery.

DeNicola, co-owner of the bakery, opened its first storefront in San Luis Obispo in California Central Coast region last summer. He said the bakery makes and sells organic, artisanal bread using California grown grains and wheat. The bakery also has a bicycle delivery service.

The business is located on low ground and a block away from downtown. On Monday, DeNicola waded through knee-high water to get to the bakery.

“There’s a creek that runs through the town and all this rain caused it to overflow,” he said.

Once he made it into the shop, he said it had fared better than he expected. “There was water damage, but luckily our floors are concrete and easy to clean and sanitize. We keep our equipment 6 inches off the ground and the water was two to four inches high,” said DeNicola.

He’s lost a few days of business and is concerned about more rain coming. That’s because he also generates additional business by selling bread at local farmer’s markets a couple of days a week.

“We might still be able to keep the shop open through the rain. But people don’t go to farmer’s markets when it rains a lot. That’s hard for us,” DeNicola said.

Ali Jansen, 44, recounts the the horror of waking Monday morning and looking out of the window to see the street in front of her building turn into a river.

Jansen owns Frame Works, a custom picture framing business and art gallery in San Luis Obispo. Her 2,500-square foot store is located on the ground floor of the same building where she lives, above it, with her family.

Intense rain last weekend forced the nearby creek to overflow, pushing water over a bridge and into the streets, she said. “We must have gotten over six inches of rain in 18 hours Sunday into Monday,” she said. At first, she couldn’t wade through the water into her store.

It took a few hours to recede. When it did, the damage was clear. “There was mud and debris. Most of the artwork was on walls and was OK. But there was damage to some custom artwork,” she said.

“People entrust us with their pieces, whether it’s from Etsy or their great grandmother’s needlework, which isn’t replaceable,” she said.

Days later, Jansen is still cleaning up the store. “I’ve worked dawn to dusk. I feel that if I stop I will collapse from the pain,” she said. She needs to keep going to dry the space as quickly as she can.

“If mold sets in, that can become a huge problem,” she said. “I would have to replace the drywall. I also have asthma so I can’t risk it.” She estimates about $10,000 in damages so far and fears it could skyrocket if she had to tackle mold.

“I’m pretty concerned,” she said.

Wineries faring better

Paso Robles Chief of Fire and Emergency Services, Jonathan Stornetta, said his team is busy accessing infrastructure damage in and around the city.

The city, which is just north of San Luis Obispo, is famous for its wineries.

Heavy rains forced the Salinas river that bisects Paso Robles to swell and flood, causing damage to roadways, homes and businesses, he said. “The river flood stage is 29 feet. We hit 32 feet,” said Stornetta.

The city had to issue forced evacuations earlier in the week. “We’ve conducted three waterway rescues and a helicopter rescue,” he said.

At the Tablas Creek Vineyard, about 15 minutes west of the town of Paso Robles, viticulturist Jordan Lonborg shot a video of Las Tablas Creek as it spilled over its banks and the water gushed past the entrance to the vineyard.

“It got hairy for a bit,” said Lonborg.

“We’ve gotten 6.5 inches of rain over a 24-36 hour period. The ground is saturated and has nowhere to run,” he said. The floodwater washed out a main road leading up to the vineyard. “It’s our primary access to town. So now instead of 20 minutes, it will take 40 minutes to get to town,” he said.

Stlll, he’s not complaining because rain can be good for the wine business.

“We rely on rain because 40% of the vineyard is dry farmed. So that’s why winter rains are crucial for the plants,” he said. Although rain has fully saturated the ground around the dormant vines, Lonborg said the soil is tightly held together and not in danger of eroding.

“We plan for extreme rains and prep our soil for it,” he said.

But rains and flooding have stalled another crucial aspect of the wine business – tastings. With the main road under water, the vineyard has had to cancel tasting events.

“We rely on tastings for business in the off season,” said Lonborg. “The profit margins are in the direct-to-consumer sales. Some wineries only sell direct to consumer and don’t have online sales. For them, this could be a bigger problem.”

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