The tsunami warning issued Friday morning had county residents heading for the hills—literally.
People looking for higher ground headed up highways 152 and 17, then camped out waiting for the tsunami danger to pass.
“I think it was just ... people woke up and heard the news and kind of freaked out,” Watsonville police Sgt. Saul Gonzalez said. “The streets are dead. I think everyone left."
But no tsunami-related problems were reported in Watsonville, authorities said.
"It was more traffic, panicky-type stuff. There were a couple of skirmishes at the gas pumps," Gonzalez said.
Highway 152 was packed with vehicles from Mount Madonna on into Santa Clara County. The California Highway Patrol was called out to direct traffic.
Luis Cordova and Claudia Soltelo were at the Sprig Day Use picnic and hiking area on the Gilroy side of Hecker Pass with their children, Gared and Louisa. The Watsonville family fled their home after a neighbor called them at 2:30 a.m. to warn them about the tsunami. Hours later, they were sitting on a table with some snacks.
"We've been waiting a long time," Cordova said, "This is like a long picnic."
Watsonville siblings Diego and Claudia Hernandez were also among the refugees.
“Around five in the morning, my grandma called," Claudia Hernandez said. "I really got scared. At that time, we didn't know what to do."
People from all over Santa Cruz County headed up Highway 17 to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains and camped out in parking lots until evacuation warnings had been lifted.
The majority of people showed up in the early-morning hours after hearing the warnings to leave low-lying areas. The parking lot at the Casa Del 17 store at the summit and the lot across the street, where the Summit Roadhouse used to be, were filled to capacity until around 9 a.m.
“We got here at 7 a.m., and it was already packed with people. Some had been here since 4 a.m.,” said Aptos resident Rachel Santana.
Santana said she started getting phone calls at around 1 a.m. from frantic family members. Although she says she really didn’t want to evacuate, living only three blocks from the ocean, she thought it was best for her and her family.
“I figured it was better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “The mother in me said I should go.”
Santana, her husband, Alfonso, and their three children, ages 2, 4 and 12, evacuated along with four carloads of about 20 family members.
The Santanas said they didn’t have time to pack too much but did bring the essentials, such as blankets, food, water, diapers and medicine.
“It’s a weird thing to get ready for,” Alfonso Santana said. “We are always prepared for an earthquake, but how do you prepare for this? Really, you just need a boat.”
Santa Cruz resident Bruno Palacios said he received a phone call from a friend at 6 a.m. asking if he could pick him and his family up and help evacuate them. The friend told Palacios that everyone in his apartment building on Portola and 17th avenues was evacuating.
“I was really worried, because I saw the videos from Japan last night,” Palacios said. “When I went to bed, I was concerned about the impact it would have here.”
People made their way to the summit from as far south as Watsonville.
Maria Nico, 15, and her family, who live in West Beach in Watsonville, grabbed the necessities and headed to the mountains at 8 a.m.
“We were really worried,” Nico said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to think about what to bring so we just grabbed food and clothes and came here.”
The extended family of 12 spent the morning playing soccer and listening to the radio to get information and figure out when they could safely head home.
Johanna Maya Puga and her family woke up at 4 a.m. and arrived at the summit at 5:30 a.m.
“I didn’t know what was going on when they woke me up,” the 12-year-old Santa Cruz resident said. “We only had time to bring blankets and food.”
By 10 a.m. the majority of people had made their way back down the mountain. A couple dozen cars remained, with some people worried about heading back toward the beaches.
“I’m going to stay here until I hear that it is officially safe to go back,” Palacios said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this, so I want to be sure that it is safe.”
Though Santa Cruz County did use an automated system to call people in areas that were being evacuated, the Santanas said they didn’t think enough was done to tell people how and where they should be evacuating.
“I feel like all they said was to go to higher ground,” Rachel Santana said. “But they really should have made the community more aware of what to do. They needed to give more instructions. Nobody knows what to do in that situation.”
Alfonso Santana agreed.
“We live in an earthquake area, so you would think they would know how to get information out to people,” he said.