Was the president’s visit to Santa Cruz County worth it?

Crowds lined roads near Watsonville Municipal Airport to greet President Joe Biden.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Veteran journalist and former Santa Cruz Sentinel editor Tom Honig reflects on President Joe Biden’s visit to Santa Cruz and the fiscal impact it might have on recovery and rebuilding. The exposure, he believes, is good for Santa Cruz and our hard-hit surrounding areas. He felt heartened by the local turnout to see Biden and is hopeful it will bring results.

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President Joe Biden’s visit to Santa Cruz County was more than a week ago, and he has since moved on to other matters, while here at home there are at least hundreds of people facing a long road to recovery from the storm damage of early January.

Biden’s visit was a popular one, as a huge number of local people turned out to see if they could get a glimpse of the 46th president, only the third sitting chief executive to visit California’s second-smallest county.

Was his visit worth it? Some local folks took to social media to complain about traffic or maybe the cost of hosting a presidential entourage. Others, though, were excited by the visit and the extra attention it brought.

“Look! There’s Capitola on the national news!”

The January storms and their aftermath mark yet another local disaster in which social media helped link our community. That happened during the 2017 flooding and during the CZU fire, when online communication and neighborhood connection was vital for survival. And it, of course, happened all through the pandemic.

In Soquel Village, Andrew Gaul stacks sandbags for his tenants between storms Jan. 2.


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The Santa Cruz County community has seen an outpouring of help and empathy these past few weeks as we endured historic storms.

We’ve heard of people, neighbors and strangers helping supply sandbags, rescuing pets, arriving with a chainsaw or a warm blanket and a pot of soup. And of officials and public safety people working late, coming up with creative, emergency solutions and rushing in to help each other.

We at Lookout want to mark these moments of kindness and community commitment.

We encourage you to publicly thank those who helped you. Please submit 200 words or fewer to letters@lookoutlocal.com, telling us who showed you kindness, when and how. If you’ve got a photo, please send it along.

We will publish these on an ongoing basis through our letters to the editor section.

During the dark and stormy hours of early January, people were able to swap information about road closures, power outages and other hazards. And by the time Biden came to visit, various social media sites also reflected local reaction.

In the spirit of social-media political partisanship, Biden critics questioned the value of the entire visit. However, it was obvious on the day his helicopter landed that huge numbers were happy he was here, as big crowds lined the streets of Capitola, Aptos and Watsonville.

County Supervisor Zach Friend, who along with other elected officials accompanied Biden on his tour, said he was moved by witnessing folks’ reaction, in particular “the sight of schoolchildren and their parents coming together at the Watsonville airport just hoping to see the president of the United States.”

The State Park Drive overpass was the place to be to catch a glimpse of President Joe Biden's motorcade.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The decision to make the visit was made at the White House level, but some established connections between the Biden administration and officials like Friend, Rep. Jimmy Panetta and others also helped facilitate the quick tour. Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said county officials, law enforcement and state parks staffers got the word of the visit just the previous day: “We had less than 24 hours to prepare. It got done.”

With the president’s departure and the receding of flood waters, local governments, businesses and individuals now turn to the next phase — cleanup and recovery. Several thousand people remain without power in San Lorenzo Valley, and the storm damage was severe in Rio Del Mar and parts of Watsonville. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have already arrived here to provide money, loans and other resources to aid in recovery.

Ultimately, the reconstruction and recovery might be the biggest payoff from the president’s visit. “During any disaster, the immediate reaction is triage. Everything happens fast,” said Friend, whose 2nd District includes Aptos and Rio Del Mar, plus portions of Capitola and Watsonville. “Afterward, people’s livelihoods are at stake, and you need more than triage. You need resources to repair and rebuild. That’s where a president’s first-hand knowledge makes a difference.”

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom outside Zelda's On The Beach in Capitola Village.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press via pool)

In other words, agencies like FEMA and the Small Business Administration have been made well aware that the president stands behind the recovery. In fact, according to Hoppin, county and state officials have already met and toured the area with representatives of FEMA.

Tom Honig is a veteran journalist and former Santa Cruz Sentinel editor.
(Via Tom Honig)

And it’s not just Santa Cruz County that will benefit, said Hoppin. Other counties, like San Benito, Monterey and Merced, suffered storm damage as bad as or worse than Santa Cruz. Those counties are now working with federal and state agencies as well.

Despite the optimism that federal resources are on the way, challenges from the storm remain. As Friend pointed out, “The damage to businesses and individuals is severe. Some lives will change forever.”

Past local disasters have proved his point. Some people who have sought aid in past storms, fires and earthquakes have complained about the amount of funding that’s ultimately available. FEMA in particular came under criticism following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake for not providing promised relief. The track back to recovery has always been a challenge, and the reality is that there are never enough resources to make everyone whole.

President Biden’s trip out West is part of that recovery. Maybe that’s why so many local folks came out to witness the occasion. It will be a long road back for some. And the president’s visit focused attention on what will be needed. For that, yes, his trip was worthwhile.

Tom Honig is a writer and journalist who has lived in Santa Cruz County since 1971. He is the former editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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