Evacuation floods Santa Cruz hotels as fire destroys 64,000

Click here if you have trouble viewing the slideshow on a mobile device.

The last time John Culloty came to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Bill Maher stood on stage in front of a full audience.

The location now looks a little different – divided into rows of tents such as an indoor campsite. It is hosting 70 of the 77,000 evacuees forced to flee the Santa Cruz Mountains and parts of San Mateo County because of the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire. Hundreds of them, including Culloty, flooded into Santa Cruz, filling hotels and seeking refuge at nearly designated evacuation centers such as the auditorium.

Culloty fled Ben Lomond on Tuesday before the evacuation fight arrived. It was the first time in his 15 years living in the area that he had to evacuate.

“I did not expect them to follow me,” he said. “I wanted to get down here before it was too full.”

The auditorium was not too busy when he arrived that day, but Santa Cruz saw more and more evacuees play during the week as fires continued to spread. Through the empty boardwalk, UC Santa Cruz set up an evacuation center in Cocoanut Grove to relocate families to students and staff after Thursday from the campus evacuation board. Hotels throughout the region say they are almost completely booked with evacuees, and many also offer special offers or only accept those who have fled.

At one of those hotels, the Beach Street Inn & Suites, general manager Laura Waltz says the hotel’s 48 rooms are almost completely full of evacuees, and she expects the handful of rooms to be vacated by the end of the day. be completed.

The evacuees are a mix between “pretty frazzled and pretty scared” and “a little more optimistic,” she says, noting that the county has given enough time to evacuate that most people don’t seem to shake.

Jayleen Shaeffer passed the time Friday afternoon with her family outside the Beach Street Inn & Suites to a picnic bench in the parking lot, overlooking the ocean. Above, the air was a light gray, but even today they are said to be the best air they have had in a while. She evacuated from Lompico on Wednesday, just before the evacuation board was announced, and she has remained on Beach Street ever since.

“We had bladders and as rainy as,” Shaeffer said of the conditions in Lompico. “We’re as hard as we could be.”

She plans to stay at the inn until it is safe to return home. The fires are now six miles from her home – and her husband’s Harley Davidson collection has a price. But she counts herself happy, tears as she speaks of two friends who have already lost their homes to the fires.

“The most important things are not things,” she said. “We have our photos and we have our family … that’s the blessing.”

Even in Watsonville, Motel 6 has been booked with evacuees every day for the past week, says receptionist Kevin Munoz.

“We have a few from Boulder Creek, we have some from Scotts Valley, they come from the very northern area,” he said. “Their situations are all the same; they finally had to evacuate, they lost a lot of their possessions, they are sad, they are destroyed. ‘

Most of the evacuees have lost their homes and are trying to stay as long as they can, but cost has become an issue for some. Motel 6 does not currently offer a discount, although Munoz says he is trying to convince his managers of this. Meanwhile, some evacuees have been forced to leave because they cannot afford the higher prices of the motel.

“I got that all morning – ‘the prices are a little too much,'” he said. “It saddens my heart.”

On the coast, more than 400 people have sought refuge in San Mateo County evacuation centers and the Red Cross has placed more in hotels throughout the area.

Some of the evacuees in South San Mateo County are immigrants who work as cooks and house cleaners and have already been hit hard by the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente, a non-profit community group. Their reaction has ranged from shock to sniffing in an evacuation center parking lot to stoicism, “We’ve been through so much, we’ll go through this now and we’ll be fine,” she said.

San Mateo County provides housing coupons, but they’re only good for three days, so Puente is trying to figure out how to expand that. Mancera is herself an evacuee. She, her husband and teenage son left their home in Butano Creek Friday with only a few suitcases. But her focus is on finding shelter for others.

“Housing is already limited and expensive,” Mancera said, “it just adds to the burden.”

There is some help for families struggling with the cost of evacuation. Some of the people with insurance and who were instructed to evacuate may be reimbursed for housing and other costs, depending on their policies. More than 400 people in Northern California have volunteered for their homes through Airbnb, according to the company, and they are working on connecting with evacuees. Not too many evacuees seek refuge with friends and family.

But as if still falling on the streets in Santa Cruz, helping everyone in hotels and shelters is just waiting for now. At the Civic Auditorium, Culloty does his best to keep everyone’s spirits high. He brought his acoustic guitar, and with no comedians or rockstars coming along, he is the entertainment of the night.

Under a blood-orange sunny Friday, Culloty and fellow guitarist Michael Martyn gathered along with several other evacuees outside the auditorium to sing and dance. She played Hotel California, one of his favorites. And he tried not to think about the fires that were still burning near his house.

“What else is there to do?” he said. “I will not make myself a wreck that worried me about it.”

Staff writer Emily Deruy contributed to this report.