“The federal government is not leaving its responsibility until it’s all fixed, it’s done,” President Joe Biden told a gathering at Seacliff State Beach on Thursday afternoon after visits to Watsonville, Capitola and a helicopter tour of storm damage across Santa Cruz County.
President Joe Biden pledged the full support of the federal government to disaster recovery efforts and long-term rebuilding in Santa Cruz County during a tour of local communities and businesses devastated by the recent series of storms.
“The federal government is not leaving its responsibility until it’s all fixed, it’s done,” he told reporters during a visit to Seacliff State Beach on Thursday afternoon.
Biden said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working to open a disaster recovery center in Santa Cruz County to help residents and businesses access federal aid, including low-cost loans and funding to repair damaged homes and vehicles. And he promised support for “significant changes” to infrastructure over the long term. “We know some of the destruction is going to take years to fully recover and rebuild,” he said.
Biden is the first sitting president to visit Santa Cruz County in more than 30 years. His visit to parts of Watsonville, Capitola and Aptos, comes days after he authorized a major disaster declaration for the county and several others in California ravaged by weeks of flooding, landslides and ocean swells.
He arrived shortly before 1 p.m. and spent roughly three hours touring damaged businesses at the Capitola wharf, the destruction of seawalls, campgrounds and the pier at Seacliff State Beach and taking a helicopter ride over the devastation to communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In Capitola Village, he walked through the Esplanade, where several businesses were heavily damaged by ocean swells earlier this month. During a visit to Paradise Beach Grille, co-owners Chuck Maier and Ally Gotlieb told Biden how the surge smashed through the beachfront patio and into the restaurant during storms on Jan. 5. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Biden said.
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Crowds began forming at least an hour before Marine One, the presidential helicopter, landed at Watsonville Municipal Airport. Hundreds of people lined the surrounding streets, hoping to get a glimpse of Biden, who arrived with Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Alex Padilla to assess storm damage that Biden recently declared a major disaster.
“It feels like the whole town has turned out to look on from afar,” a reporter from Britain’s Daily Mail remarked in a note to the White House press corps.
Onlookers held up signs ranging from welcoming the president to Watsonville, to “Biden Liar,” and “Choose Life” to “Asylum Now.” Coastward, a crowd of 50 and growing gathered on the State Park Drive overpass on Highway 1, waiting for the president’s motorcade to pass underneath.
Lauren Moody, a Soquel resident who lives two blocks away from an area evacuated during the storms, took her children out of school to see what she said could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Isn’t this way better than doing math?” Moody asked her children, who cheered in agreement. “Guys, this will probably never happen again, so take it all in.”
The crowd at Seacliff, where Biden spoke to first responders and local officials, was more raucous. A fight nearly broke out between two onlookers.
One Secret Service agent, in mock disbelief, asked how so many people were able to skip work to watch cars go by. “How are there so many people without jobs?” he asked. “I wish I could just miss work and come out here in the middle of the day.”
“Well, it’s Santa Cruz,” one woman retorted.
The guest list was tight for Biden’s visit to Santa Cruz County; it excluded almost all local press and most local elected officials and their staffs. Two county supervisors, however, did receive invitations to get some face time with Biden.
District 4 Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, elected in November to represent South County, got to greet Biden as he arrived at the Watsonville Municipal Airport — and bid him farewell when he departed for Washington. Hernandez said he got only about 40 seconds with the president, but his message was clear.
“I just told him that [South County] is a hardworking community, and I emphasized the need for bilingual services,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be setting up offices in South County to handle the recovery. He urged everyone affected by the storms to keep track of their expenses, from cleanup costs to property loss and even hotel stays, during the evacuation. He said the president’s visit offered a morale boost and gave him confidence that the community was supported in its full recovery.
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District 2 Supervisor Zach Friend met Biden at the airport in Watsonville and then accompanied him to Capitola and Seacliff State Beach. Friend said Biden, as well as Newsom, wanted to take the discussion beyond just the federal financial commitments and the loss of infrastructure, and instead hear more of the personal stories of those affected by the storms.
“There is nothing more precious than a president’s time, his decision to dedicate that time to us shows his empathy,” Friend said. “He wanted to be a conduit for the rebuilding process.”
Friend said what he witnessed Thursday, with Biden and Newsom’s focus on listening to personal and emotional impacts, was evidence of a shifting approach in dealing with and understanding climate change.
“It’s easy to talk about climate change in terms of financial impact or infrastructure resilience, but there is an emotional and personal toll to watching a place you’ve always known start to change in this way,” Friend said. He added that although natural disasters and their impacts vary depending on where one lives in the world, victims of climate change share a specific emotional weight.
Friend said Biden’s visit will help the community cross the threshold from prolonged anguish into a new hope.
“To see the sun out today for the president’s visit, it was a setting we all knew,” Friend said. “It made you believe that we will recover from this.”
During the flight on Air Force One en route to Moffett Federal Airfield Thursday morning, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters that the agency’s early damage estimates from the recent storms across California were “several hundred million” dollars, adding: “I expect those numbers to go up.”
Criswell visited Santa Cruz over the weekend to assess the damage. California has experienced nine atmospheric rivers since late December, Criswell said. People on the ground during her weekend visit told her the intense storms “felt like it was being hit by hurricane after hurricane.”
The National Weather Service reported that nearly 3 feet of rain (35.39 inches) fell in parts of the county between Dec. 26 and Jan. 17.
FEMA is still assessing the full extent of the storms’ impact, but Criswell said that more than 500 homes had been damaged in the county, in addition to businesses in Capitola Village.
State park officials at Seacliff State Beach told her they had lost emergency access to the beach and that the park’s lifeguard dispatch center had been damaged or destroyed.
Officials in Santa Cruz reported that much of the large amount of timber that washed up on the beaches was debris from the 2020 CZU fires that had been pushed out to sea, only to be tossed violently back to shore by ocean swells, contributing to the damage to seawalls and homes and businesses, she said.
Such devastating weather events are only becoming more common, Criswell added. “We’ve never seen nine atmospheric rivers in a period of just a few weeks like this,” she said. “So we have to be prepared for this increase in the number of weather events and severe weather events.
During his visit to Seacliff, Biden was also pressed by reporters about classified documents from the Obama administration found at his Delaware home and other locations associated with him.
“Look, as we found a handful of documents that were filed in the wrong place, we immediately turned them over to the archives and the Justice Department,” he said. “We are fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly. I think you’re going to find there’s nothing there — I have no regrets in following what the lawyers have told me what they want me to do, it’s exactly what we’re doing. There’s no there there.”