.Pajaro Flood: One Year Later

Pain tempered with progress as the town recovers and prepares for the next one.

Jerry Castro has lived in the same house on Cayetano Street in Pajaro all his life. His parents owned it before him, he then bought it off of them. His children and their children were also raised there. Now, more than a year after the Pajaro flood threatened to wash decades of memories away, Castro feels lucky.

“It was only my garage that got damaged. I was lucky that the water [only] came right up to there,” Castro says.

Some of his neighbors were not so fortunate, according to Castro, and their homes suffered significant damage. Those who owned their homes came back after the waters retreated to start the rebuilding process. Many renters did not come back, he says.

Castro was able to secure just over $5,000 from his homeowners insurance for repairs, which he says was barely enough. However, there are many residents in need of financial assistance, and even after a year, aid is still trickling in.

At the anniversary of the flood, residents here are seeing the town’s recovery slowly progress. However, the specter of the damage still lingers.

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Fleeing The Flood

In the early morning hours of March 11, 2023, the levees of the Pajaro River gave way near Pajaro after atmospheric river storms drenched the area. Scenes of a town underwater were transmitted nationwide from a region where the population is predominantly Mexican immigrant farmworkers.

The day of the flood, Esperanza Esquivel left her one-bedroom apartment in the middle of Pajaro to safer ground with three children in tow.

As residents fled to nearby emergency shelters, local community organizations such as Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Catholic Charities, United Way of Santa Cruz County and Community Bridges headed up the relief efforts. Although Pajaro is technically in Monterey County, its proximity to Watsonville makes it a de facto part of the South Santa Cruz County community.

Esquivel said in May 2023 that she was turned away from the emergency shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds after the flood and was left with few options. The home she rented for four years became uninhabitable, severely damaged by the flood waters. Furniture, appliances and her family’s personal effects were all lost to the destruction. 

Esquivel had received a little over $4,000 in FEMA assistance. She was forced to separate from her two eldest daughters and moved to Salinas with her youngest child. Now, almost a year later, she is back in Pajaro living at her previous address.

“Things are going well, although I’m scared because of the recent rains,” Esquivel says in Spanish.

She has now upgraded from her old one-bedroom dwelling to a two-and-a-half bedroom apartment in the same complex. She is now paying $2,800 in rent per month, double what she used to pay. Esquivel used to work in the area’s strawberry fields, but now works as a custodian, and says she is struggling to make ends meet as a single mother.

“You’re the only one that knows your struggles,” Esquivel says.

In the past year, over $14 million in financial relief was distributed to flood victims. Esquivel says that she did receive some aid in the form of debit cards and food donations in the immediate aftermath, but only up until she moved away. As the recovery of Pajaro continues, aid is still being distributed a year later.

More Money

Tony Nuñez-Palomino, communications manager for Community Bridges, says that, to date, his organization has distributed nearly $1.7 million in financial assistance. Undocumented residents are limited in the type of state and federal aid they can obtain, and the nonprofit has helped flood victims no matter their status.

However, he says there are residents in the area that have yet to receive any aid for damages.

“There’s people that still have outstanding losses with property, with home, with rent, and all that sort of stuff related to the flood that FEMA did not cover and  that their insurance did not cover,” Nuñez-Palomino explains.

Last month, Monterey County secured $20 million in relief funds from the state’s Office of Emergency Services, which is intended as direct relief for individuals, businesses and undocumented residents. Officials will begin disbursing the funds, called the Pajaro Unmet Needs Disaster Assistance Program, this month.

Monterey County District 1 Supervisor Luis Alejo, who is originally from Watsonville, says that Pajaro needs the funding boost.

“Some help has come, but there is more coming in these next few weeks, and I think that’s going to be a big help for the community of Pajaro as it continues through its recovery phase,” says Alejo.

In a state that relies on farmworker labor to keep the agricultural industry running, 75% of farmworkers are undocumented, according to the Center For Farmworker Families. Many of these workers were displaced by the Pajaro flood.

In June 2023, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched the Storm Assistance For Immigrants Project (SAI), a $95 million plan to provide aid for undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for FEMA aid. Under the project, individuals who were affected by the winter storms in 2023 can receive up to $4,500 in assistance.

Alejo says local officials were instrumental in creating the project.

“Monterey County was one of the first communities in the state to advocate for immigrants,” he says. “There were some really good things that happened that no other community, no other state had enacted for its flood victims.”

Beyond the needs of individuals, the recovery of infrastructure and institutions is also continuing in Pajaro.

Repairs and Resilience

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Murry Schekman stands in a gutted classroom a little more than a year after floodwaters inundated nearly every room at Pajaro Middle School.

The flood displaced 450 students, alongside teachers and staff. With contractor Ausonio, Inc. now making the repairs, Schekman says students can still expect to return for the 2024-25 school year.

“We are on schedule,” he says.

The massive undertaking requires intensive cleaning and replacing flooring and sheetrock, as well as painting.

“Everything got muddy,” Schekman said. “Moisture rose, and ruined everything in the walls.” 

The students have been attending classes in Hall District and Ohlone elementary schools,  and Lakeview Middle School.

Now, the school boasts a new coat of bright yellow paint, and if Schekman has his way, will also soon have a new synthetic turf sports field. 

PVUSD is about halfway through its goal of raising the $2 million needed for the project, which Schekman describes as “the last project of my professional life.”

“This school is the center of this community, it has been around a long time, and the community deserves a field,” he said.

But as the school plans to welcome back students and the community begins to find normalcy, the question remains: Will the levees fail again?

The national attention on the floods helped spur action from state and federal officials and agencies to streamline the ongoing upgrade on the Pajaro River Levee. 

The $600 million project will give 100-year flood protection to the communities surrounding the Pajaro River–as well as Corralitos ad Salsipuedes creeks–which have suffered numerous devastating floods over the decades.

In August 2023, Assemblyman Robert Rivas authored Assembly Bill 876, which exempted the project from certain environmental regulations potentially shaving off years from the project.

“One year after the levee broke in Pajaro, the main message the community needs to hear is that this continues to be a priority for Monterey County,” Supervisor Alejo says

“And the stars are aligned today better than they ever have in the past. We have a commitment from the Army Corps, and we have a commitment of funding from the state, and we’re actually moving. The Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency is moving to get this work done as soon as possible,” he asserts.

For Jerry Castro, the effect of the flood and the potential for another one looms in his mind.

“We’ll never be the same. But we’ll wait to see what happens in the next one,” Castro says.


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