In April, 20-year-old Beatriz Lopez returned to the ramshackle apartment she shares with 10 family members on Associated Lane, after spending 45 days in the emergency shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. That shelter closed on May 15 and the remaining evacuees still without a place to go are living in “non-congregate” shelters such as hotels.
She had also returned to work in a strawberry field in Watsonville, along with several family members.
Lopez is one of the lucky ones.
She is one of the many people who were displaced after a series of atmospheric river storms swept through the Central Coast.
The storms caused grievous damage to hundreds of homes in Watsonville when Corralitos Creek crested, spilling into numerous neighborhoods and wreaking havoc in the largely senior community.
The situation peaked on March 11, when the Pájaro River broke through its levee. Torrents of water spilled into the tiny, mostly low-income town of Pájaro, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 people and damaging or destroying hundreds of homes. The waters also inundated surrounding farm fields.
Now, as residents trickle back home—and some return to work—many are still homeless and jobless, with no firm date in sight for either of those situations to be resolved.
“These people don’t have money,” says Dr. Ann Lopez, a physician who runs the Center for Farmworker Families.
Worse, many of the residents are undocumented and as such are ineligible for federal assistance.
“I don’t know how they think these people are supposed to survive,” Lopez says.
State and Local Action
There is hope on the horizon. A bill by State Assemblyman Robert Rivas—Assembly Bill 513, also known as the California Individual Assistance Act—would bring financial assistance to storm and flood victims who are ineligible for state and federal assistance.
The bill is winding its way through the legislative process, most recently passing through the Appropriations and Budget subcommittees. AB 513 does have an urgency clause that would allow it to take effect immediately after passage.
Senator Ana Caballero, meanwhile, is writing Senate Bill 831, which would create a pilot program to allow certain agricultural workers who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years to gain permanent legal status. The Senate Public Safety and Appropriations committees have so far approved that bill, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
Community Bridges in Watsonville has begun doling out Wave 2 of its three-part financial assistance package, which includes disbursements of $1,450 to $2,750, depending on the size of their families and the level of damage their residences sustained.
Those funds come from donations and from Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. They also come thanks in part to a $25,000 donation from the Union Pacific Railroad Foundation, which the Community Bridges accepted on May 25.
But in the meantime, people are struggling to find a way to feed their families.
On May 23, Lopez says she received four phone calls from several people wanting Target gift cards to help pay household expenses. She also helps workers injured by slipping in the slick mud brought in by the floodwaters. Still others have developed rashes Lopez suspects were caused by the mud.
“There’s no work available, and they need food,” she says. “It’s not good, and there is no assistance at the state level and the federal level.”
Especially galling, Lopez says, is that both President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the Capitola Esplanade soon after the disasters, and the moneyed tourist mecca is now largely repaired.
“And here we have weeks and weeks since the flood, and people are still struggling,” she says. “I think it’s unconscionable, quite frankly, and I think we need to do better. And I think that Monterey County needs to be held accountable for the losses of both farming land and the losses incurred by all of these farm workers.”
Looking at the Numbers
Monterey County Director of Emergency Management, Kelsey Scanlon, told the Board of Supervisors at a May 16 meeting that 10,000 people were evacuated throughout Monterey County during the storms and floods.
A total of 240 single-family homes in Pájaro were damaged, along with 42 multi-family residences and 81 commercial buildings.
Those numbers are likely higher, Scanlon says, since inspectors were unable to access many properties.
Sanitation workers hauled away 9,021 cubic yards of debris, the equivalent of 346 truckloads, Scanlon says. That was in addition to 598 “white goods” such as washers, dryers, refrigerators and stoves.
Some 500 people stayed at the emergency shelter run by Monterey County, with 43,000 meals provided during the 65 days it was open, Scanlon says.
Roughly 240 people from 70 households are staying in hotels, a temporary shelter that comes with a somewhat onerous requirement: families must reapply every 21 days, a process that includes proving they are looking for housing.
“I get so angry that these people that provide us with food and are responsible for a 55 billion dollar industry in the state have no support, no safety net during these tough times,” Lopez says.
Mayra Bernabe, an organizer with Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA), says that the residents are also contending with the chemical-laden mud left over from the flood.
This and other debris gathers under the destroyed and abandoned vehicles. Street sweepers then kick up the dust into the air, where residents breathe it in.
“There is definitely a lot of continuous frustration and despair, and still a lot of work to be done for the full-on recovery,” Bernabe says. “There are definitely families and people who are still out of home or out of work. Some families are still seeing the effects of the mud that is still on the streets.”
The situation is even worse for families who earn too much—or whose residence did not sustain enough damage—to qualify for aid, but are still considered low-income, Bernabe says.
“They’re unsure who’s going to help them,” she says.
As the summer agriculture season begins to kick into high gear, there will be numerous workers jockeying for scarce jobs, Bernabe says.
“There is a sense that there is not going to be enough work because of the fields on the Pájaro side that are still unharvestable,” she says.
Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director, Norm Groot, told Farm Progress that one-fourth of the county’s crop—an estimated $1 billion—could be lost this year. Some 2,500 acres of the county’s 12,500 acres of strawberry crops were lost, Groot says.
Bernabe says that the families that qualify for federal aid must still contend with the laborious process of first filing insurance claims and cataloging their losses before the Federal Emergency Management Agency will consider their applications.
“There are multiple things that need to be attended to and there are families in different diverse situations who need the help and assistance,” she says. “There is a lot of need and continued despair and frustration and stress of what might happen.”
But the crisis has had a positive outcome, Bernabe says. Many of the residents have been attending Board of Supervisors meetings to decry their situation and to demand the support they still need.
“I have seen more residents becoming involved and being agents of change, and making sure they are speaking up for their rights to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Bernabe says.