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Parts of California are seeing a break from a series of relentless winter storms

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Parts of California are seeing a break from a series of relentless winter storms. Businesses in the Santa Cruz area are using the reprieve to clean up spoiled food and debris. But officials say true recovery can't begin until after the last expected storms in the middle of next week. From member station KAZU, Jerimiah Oetting reports.

JERIMIAH OETTING, BYLINE: Capitola is the classic California beach town just down the coast from Santa Cruz - sand, surf and, usually, bustling restaurants and shops. It's one of the economic hearts of the Monterey Bay. But over the last week, storms and the ocean pummeled this place.

KARL HEIMAN: Yeah, it was apocalyptic. It was just amazing. The waves were crashing through the windows, through the railing, tearing out the wharf.

OETTING: That's Karl Heiman. He owns Toots Coffee (ph), a fixture in Capitola for more than four decades.

HEIMAN: And then the buildings all along the esplanade here are actually built over water. So the water underneath was causing damage, the wave action underneath.

OETTING: Toots Coffee is on the second floor. But Heiman's building had damage to the sewer line. And he lost power, and with it, all the food he hoped to sell to customers.

HEIMAN: I'm just cleaning out because all the perishables are bad. The milks, the pies, the cookies, the cakes - all that stuff has to be thrown away.

OETTING: Just down the esplanade, Jeff Lantis and his staff sweep up the floor in the dim interior of the Sand Bar restaurant. But he's facing a much, much bigger cleanup. Like many of the ground-floor businesses along the esplanade, the Sand Bar has a yellow tag from the city on its window, meaning it's heavily damaged.

JEFF LANTIS: These enormous waves came with the high tide at the same time and just rippled the floors and tore everything apart. I mean, we got lifted up off the ground about three feet.

OETTING: The power is out. Dirt and debris are everywhere. And there's a hole in the floor that goes straight to the ocean below. Lantis pulls back the plywood on one of the boarded-up windows and reveals a view - the shining Monterey Bay and the destroyed Capitola wharf, torn in half by the storm. At first, he says, he was sure they lost everything. And he isn't sure how much will be covered by his insurance.

LANTIS: But I'm hoping that, like, the civil engineer came through and said, oh, it's salvageable.

OETTING: But much of that salvage work has to wait. Capitola police captain Sarah Ryan says, right now, folks need to shore up what they can before the next storms come.

SARAH RYAN: So we're not going to see as much recovery right in here in the now because we are still amidst some weather activity that's a little concerning.

OETTING: Only after this series of major storms has passed after next week, she says, the real recovery can begin. The engineers, contractors, builders...

RYAN: Yeah, I think we're going to really see it kick into high gear. I think I know more about planning than I ever thought I would as a police officer.

OETTING: Everyone will have more to learn in the days ahead. The city's initial estimate is at least $2.5 million in damage. The destruction extends beyond the businesses that are right on the ocean to places like the Tuscan restaurant Caruso's. It's a block inland and didn't see water damage like other places. But it has been without power since late last week. Owner Melissa Serriteno is tossing out her entire inventory of perishable food, expensive meats and cheeses.

MELISSA SERRITENO: Even our wine. Our wine is probably ruined.

OETTING: That's because the wood-fired oven stayed hot. And without power to run the fans that cool things down, the wine overheated. Once her power is back, she can reorder food and wine and get her business up and running again. But she says things won't be right until the whole esplanade is back.

SERRITENO: We're all a community. So if it affects them, it affects all of us because, together, we're a village. And the village is going to be stronger.

OETTING: It could take some time for tourists to return. Woody debris litters the beach. The storm smashed the pier, a big attraction. Much of the town's typical beachfront charm is in ruins. For NPR News, I'm Jerimiah Oetting in Capitola, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BROTHERS NYLON'S "LOFI SAUCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jerimiah Oetting