Merced and Monterey counties got $20 million each from the state in October to help the residents of Planada and Pajaro recover from January floods.

But local officials want to spend at least some of the money on infrastructure, while residents want all of the money to help relieve debt they’ve incurred from the natural disaster. That is, after all, what state lawmakers ostensibly sent the money for.

Days of rain led to a flood of local canals and creeks in the area on Jan. 9, forcing the complete evacuation of the majority-Latino community of Planada, population almost 4,000.

Like those in the Monterey County town of Pajaro, just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville and Santa Cruz County, many Planada residents are undocumented or work low-wage jobs in agriculture and lost both property and paychecks to the flood and subsequent weeks of relentless rain.

Santa Cruz County builds back, prepares for an uncertain future

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The vast majority of Planada households — 83% — experienced some type of economic loss from flooding, an April study from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center found. Affected households reported the loss of a vehicle, heater, or air conditioning, as well as mounting unpaid bills and mold issues.

Central Valley lawmakers used the study as the basis for the $20 million budget request, which emphasized the money needed to go to direct aid and not infrastructure projects or public works projects long deprioritized by local officials.

In an Oct. 24 Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting, early plans shared by Merced County officials seemed poised to follow this directive — mostly. A slideshow presented by the assistant county executive officer during the meeting said a portion of the funds could be directed to clearing waterways and creeks and “identifying infrastructure challenges” ahead of an El Niño winter forecasted for 2024, but officials never specified further.

County officials insist they’ll be drawing plans from community feedback, but residents still don’t fully believe officials will provide the help they need.

Anastacio Rosales stands in front of his home that was renovated after the flood in Planada earlier this year.
Anastacio Rosales stands in front of his home that was renovated after the flood in Planada earlier this year. Credit: Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters / CatchLight Local

Some, like Anastacio Rosales, say they responsible for speaking up on behalf of undocumented community members, and others that don’t feel like the officials are listening to their concerns or care what happens to them.

“We have to keep together — juntos — to show people from the county that we care,” Rosales told CalMatters.

Burdened with debt

When floodwaters hit Terry Street, the Youngs had just minutes to make it out of their Planada home. Carolyn Young remembers slipping in her haste to leave the house. Her daughter Keely caught her before she fell face-first into the rushing floodwaters, hauling the 80-year-old to the truck waiting in the driveway before returning to the house. She guarded it until four feet of water filled the home and a boat from the sheriff’s office forced her to evacuate.

Ector Moreno said he and his wife waded through several feet of water to rescue passports and their savings, abandoning submerged furniture and toys their daughter would cry over for weeks.

Many residents only made it out of their homes because they or a friend or relative owned a truck that could traverse the floodwaters.

Recovering from the disaster has been costly.

Merced County has spent the month of November hosting workshops to gather feedback from residents about how they would like the funds distributed. In the Oct. 24 meeting to authorize the county to accept the grant from the state, county staff told the Merced County Board of Supervisors a county program launching in early 2024 would focus on dispensing direct financial assistance, without considering immigration status.

Specifically, the county intends for residents to apply for financial assistance to replace vehicles and cover the cost of home inspections, repairs and other remediation work — but also address infrastructure needs like clearing waterways and creeks before a forecasted El Niño winter floods them again.

But Zaray Ramirez, an policy advocate for state advocacy group Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said they have consistently heard from residents that while they want the county to fix the damaged infrastructure, it shouldn’t come out of the $20 million from the state.

“Infrastructure is really the [lowest] priority,” Ramirez said. “That funding should still take place, but should be coming from a separate pool. The canal and creeks are something that Merced County should have done even before flooding occurred.”

Rodrigo Espinoza, the county supervisor representing Planada, told CalMatters he couldn’t answer questions in time for this story because he was out of the country. Merced County spokesperson Mike North said the county conducted the last community engagement workshop Nov. 16 and will present a draft plan to residents on Nov. 21.

“Community engagement is a high priority for us as we collect input and fine-tune these programs,” North said.

Still distributing money

Months later, it’s hard to tell residents’ unassuming homes in quiet Planada neighborhoods were submerged by floodwaters in January. But the restored exteriors, rebuilt walls and borrowed furniture conceals the financial and emotional strain of tossing out everything below the four-foot watermark on the wall and starting over.

Many residents still carry resentment, distrust and thousands of dollars of debt from the disaster.

A few residents have already filed claims against the Merced County and several other local agencies for what one of their lawyers told the Fresno Bee was a “preventable disaster.”

Because many California undocumented families hardest hit by the flooding couldn’t qualify for federal aid, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office launched the Storm Assistance for Immigrants program in June in an attempt to close that gap.

The state is still working through 19 nonprofits to distribute $95 million to flood victims that didn’t qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance because of their legal status. Barely half the funds have been distributed in the past six months, with about $3.5 million going to 2,435 people in Merced County as of Oct. 29.

Direct aid still needed, Planada residents say

Like half residents surveyed in the UC Merced center study, Rosales, Moreno and Young all lost a vehicle to the floodwaters. Piles of contaminated items were still stacked in their backyards in the last week of October.

The backyard of the Young home was also filled with clotheslines of drying shirts and pants. They only got a few days of use out of the dryer they got for Christmas, Young said, before the flood ruined it. Carpet, wood floors, drywall — all had to be gutted, mostly on their own dime. Rosales managed to salvage the top half of an antique dresser inherited from his parents, but everything below, drawers and all, were tossed.

A few items that Anastacio Rosales was able to salvage from the flood that hit Planada earlier this year.
A few items that Anastacio Rosales was able to salvage from the flood that hit Planada earlier this year. Credit: Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters / CatchLight Local

Anastacio Rosales' renovated home after it was flooded during torrential storms in Planada earlier this year.
Anastacio Rosales’ renovated home after it was flooded during torrential storms in Planada earlier this year. Credit: Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters / CatchLight Local

Residents were warned to dump everything the floodwaters touched when it seeped through every crevice and crack of their homes — with good reason. Young said the smell of the water was noticeable even in the chaos, and the water that splashed on her face when she fell on her doorstep left red, itchy sores.

“My neighbor said we would have been better off just burning our houses to the ground,” Young said, frustrated at the difficulty of recouping the cost of her lost property.

She got $35,000 through flood insurance but still had to take out more than $20,000 in loans. Living mostly on the Social Security checks she and her children — who both receive disability payments — Young said it feels like Planada has been left behind.

A different spending plan in Pajaro

Monterey County seems to be taking a different approach for the funds for Pajaro, population 3,500. County supervisor Glenn Church said Pajaro has suffered from a lack of investment in public infrastructure and community spaces for decades. The state grant requires the funds to be committed by June 2024, Church said. Drawn from their own series of community meetings, the current “beautifying” plans include adding streetlights, fixing sidewalks and trying to enhance a downtown that has often suffered in comparison to nearby Watsonville.

“There are economic problems that have existed long before the flood,” Church said. “This is a rare opportunity to build it back to what it should be.”

Other state and federal funds will go toward fixing the levee system that failed and flooded the tiny community, Church said. But county staff are also trying to find other ways to bolster town infrastructure for the next inundation.

Based on Church’s assessment, many Pajaro residents were able to benefit from direct aid programs such as the Governor’s Storm Assistance for Immigrants. But Danielle Rivera, an environmental planning professor at University of California, Berkeley, said many of the people most affected by the flooding were migratory farmworkers from indigenous backgrounds who had moved on by the time aid programs started rolling out.

Rivera and her students have been conducting field research in Pajaro since the town flooded in February. Her work focuses on how low-income, rural and unincorporated communities can build disaster resilience, especially in the face of climate change.

“There is a real sense of dread, and we’re also trying to help the residents feel a bit safer,” Rivera said. “We’re giving out resources about how they could flood proof their homes. There’s a real apprehension for this winter, fearing this is going to happen again.”

What’s next for Planada residents?

Moreno can still point to exactly where the water rose in his home, even if it’s hard to imagine the now-pristine floors obscured in murk for days. He and a friend spent months restoring the home themselves, squeezing in work around his long shifts transporting milk for dairies in Turlock.

But it took a toll. He spent $38,000 of his savings on repairs and racked up $13,000 more in credit card debt, while so far he’s received $2,000 from FEMA. He estimates his property damage actually tops $146,000.

“It was an experience I hope never occurs again,” Moreno said in Spanish.

Ector Moreno at his home in Planada
Ector Moreno at his home in Planada on Oct. 27, 2023. Many homes in Planada flooded after major rains hit the area earlier in the year. Credit: Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters / CatchLight Local

Rivera said state and individual counties have to plan for disasters with towns like Planada in mind, or one disaster could economically cripple entire communities.

“When you look at communities that are not even impoverished, but are lower income in general, they aren’t going to have as much savings or resources at their disposal to help them get through a disaster and rebuild,” Rivera said. “They often have less mobility in the actual events of their disasters, as the more affluent can get up and drive away … The lack of resources poses higher risks through the disaster, but that also affects them after the disaster.”

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