Biden should expedite disaster declaration, Panetta says after visit to devastated Santa Cruz Mountain towns

Congressman Jimmy Panetta and other local politicians at Seacliff State Beach.
Left to right: Congressman Jimmy Panetta, Santa Cruz Supervisor Zach Friend, Assemblymember Dawn Addis and, State Senator John Laird viewing storm damage at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos on Friday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Rep. Jimmy Panetta received an eye-opening visual Friday of the damage incurred by the San Lorenzo Valley following the 2023 storms. He says he is working to make sure the federal government takes care of the region during recovery.

With rain beading off his raincoat, Rep. Jimmy Panetta stood stunned in front of the massive landslide blocking Highway 9 in Ben Lomond. The recent rains sent more than eight million pounds of earth onto the small stretch of highway, according to official estimates. Next to it, a bobcat shifting around redwood trunks suddenly appeared diminutive.

Hopping back into the CALFire van transporting him around the San Lorenzo Valley Friday morning, Panetta turned to District 5 Supervisor Bruce McPherson.

“That sucks, Bruce. That really sucks, Bruce. I didn’t realize it was going to be that big,” Panetta said. Earlier in the day, Panetta toured Felton Grove, a neighborhood transformed into a mucky riverbed by the swollen San Lorenzo River on Monday. One of Panetta’s first questions was a fundamental one. Where, exactly, would all of this mud go, and how would residents or the county get it there? (Officials are still working to answer that question.)

The morning subjected Panetta to an eye-opening visual, supported by stories, numbers and appeals from the San Lorenzo Valley’s emergency responders. Sheriff Jim Hart told Panetta he felt the storm hit people in the mountain communities hardest. As of Friday,, two weeks after the first storm touched down in Santa Cruz County, emergency responders were still unable to reach some communities, such as Lompico, because of landslides or washouts. And many of those communities were without power or cell service.

“[Lompico residents] are having to self-transport on medical issues now,” Hart said. “I know one gentleman who was having a medical emergency and had to drive himself to the fire station to get help.”

Hart estimates that the total damage just for the county will exceed that of the 2017 floods, which cost an estimated $140 million. He also said that as of Friday morning, 3,000 people in the San Lorenzo Valley remained without power and that PG&E sent 2,800 workers to Santa Cruz County alone to help get the power back on.

McPherson, a lifelong Santa Cruz County resident, told Panetta and a group of first responders that the 2023 storms were the most destructive he’s seen since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“This storm, throughout the whole county, has put pressure on everybody,” McPherson said.

A group of local politicians tours storm damage at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos on Friday.

The largest lingering question for the county is whether President Joe Biden will declare a major disaster for California, a formal, executive action that would unlock a deep well of federal assistance for the recovery. Panetta, who just sent a letter to Biden urging him to make the declaration — a letter signed by both California senators and the entire California delegation in the House of Representatives — said he believes the declaration is only a matter of time. Panetta believes California will get an “expedited” declaration, which allows the state to skip all of the early assessments and start receiving help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency immediately.

“FEMA will come in and not only provide resources just to governments, nonprofits and tribes, but to individuals as well,” Panetta said. “For people wondering who’s going to help them, FEMA will be there for them on that individual basis.”

Panetta added that the Small Business Administration will also be providing disaster loans to small businesses harmed by the storms. Panetta emphasized, however, that the level of help was going to depend on the quality of coordination between local, state and federal governments, and the people they serve.

“If people come to you and ask how to get help from FEMA, have them call my office,” Panetta said to a group of San Lorenzo Valley officials. “We are that bridge. It’s our responsibility to make sure the federal government works for the people who are living here in the San Lorenzo Valley.”


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