.Unmet Needs Program Taking Off In Pajaro

Local and state officials looked to nonprofits to model program

Additional assistance for Pajaro flood victims is getting to those that are still in need more than a year later through Monterey County’s Pajaro Unmet Needs Disaster Assistance Program. Within the first week, hundreds of applications have been processed in a joint effort between Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Local leaders say that efforts in the aftermath of the flood set the tone for the way local state and federal governments disbursed aid this time around.

Just over a week after the opening of a community outreach and application center in the town of Pajaro, over 500 applications for assistance had been processed, according to Monterey County Communications Director Nicholas Pasculli.He says the turnout has been “slightly higher than expected,” but that there are no plans to extend the center’s operations beyond the April 27 end date.

The Unmet Needs Program is funded by a $20 million relief funds grant from the state’s Office of Emergency Services, which is intended as direct relief for individuals, businesses and undocumented residents. The funds will also be used for long-term recovery projects.

On March 11, 2023, the multiple breaches along the Pajaro River levee resulted in the devastating flooding of the town, sending thousands of residents fleeing. Once the waters receded, local, state and federal entities stepped in to provide financial assistance. As of late last year, over $14 million in financial relief had been distributed to flood victims. 

About half of that money came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which distributed close to $7.5 million to qualifying applicants.

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Nonprofit organizations Community Bridges and the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB) have provided $6.7 million. These organizations worked with flood victims from start, stepping in when state and federal relief were not yet available, and helped regardless of their undocumented status. 

However, many residents and businesses are still struggling a year on and the Unmet Needs program is meant to bridge that gap. Community Bridges and Catholic Charities Diocese of Monterey were tapped to distribute $5.4 million in individual assistance, while the Monterey County Workforce Development Board will disburse $3.7 million to small businesses.

Tony Nuñez-Palomino, Communications Manager for Community Bridges, which has partnered with Monterey County to process applications for individual assistance, says that the volume of applicants has been high during the first week.

“We’ve been seeing about anywhere from 50 to 100 people each day since we started [March 27],” he says. Nuñez-Palomino estimated his organization had processed around 260 applications as of April 3.

The current efforts underway are a result of the advocacy local officials and community leaders have engaged in since the flood to raise awareness of the ongoing need in the area. Nuñez-Palomino says that it’s a “silver lining” in the wake of a disaster.

“[T]he fact that Monterey County got $20 million to distribute among Pajaro (residents), it speaks volumes to not only their ability to advocate for the people of Pajaro; to work with their state partners to get this money to come here. But also (speaks) for the people of Pajaro; that they finally have a voice,” Nuñez-Palomino says.

Pasculli says that Monterey County has strived to improve its outreach efforts in the last year to better inform the immigrant and farmworker communities about the type of assistance available to them

“We conducted extensive outreach efforts with all social media platforms in collaboration with our Program partners, including Informational Sessions to ensure all residents were accurately informed of assistance. We continue to provide ongoing Program information ensuring all Pajaro residents affected are applying. [And] specific outreach with the alert and warning notification system, to improve communication to residents,” Pasculli says.

Nuńez-Palomino says that his organization and others involved in the Pajaro flood response learned from their experience responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and the CZU fires in 2020. Many residents were left with unmet needs and the same reality applies to Pajaro. However, he says, the level of advocacy from residents and officials has prompted a better response from the state in this case.

“We’re just happy that when the county was thinking about how to set this up, they looked at our program and they looked at other unmet needs programs, and they said, ‘Yeah, this is the right way to do it. We’re going to do it like this,’” Nuñez-Palomino says.

“A lot of families that had to use a lot of their savings to do some of this contracted [repair] work, they just didn’t get the money from FEMA. They didn’t get enough money from us, they didn’t get enough money from anyone else. And so it’s gonna make a lot of families whole. And you just don’t see it, It’s really unheard of.”


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