Pajaro residents begin to return home, almost two weeks after floods devastated community

Rey Osorio gets to work cleaning up the mud that coated his Pajaro home
Rey Osorio gets to work cleaning up the mud that coated his Pajaro home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Muddy, damaged homes greeted those returning Thursday to Pajaro after Monterey County officials lifted an evacuation order in place since the March 11 levee breach flooded the agricultural community. It’s not clear when the water will be safe to drink again, and a long cleanup process lies ahead.

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Oscar Ramirez stood at the doorway to his bedroom in Pajaro on Thursday, surveying the slick, brown mud that covered the floor.

In his room, plastic bottles, shoes, boxes and cleaning supplies were scattered everywhere. In the driveway, a layer of dry mud covered the pavement sprinkled with soda cans and plastic bags.

“When the water rose, it knocked everything over,” said the 29-year-old. “It almost looked like the whole room turned into a washing machine. It all got shifted.”

Ramirez and his younger brother Adrian, 22, were among roughly 1,500 residents who fled when the Pajaro River levee failed on March 11, flooding homes, businesses and Pajaro Middle School.

The brothers and their family had been staying with relatives in Las Lomas — complicating their routines of getting to work and school. After Monterey County officials lifted the evacuation order Thursday, allowing residents to return to the devastated community for the first time in nearly two weeks, the brothers were anxious to get back to their family’s home so they could start cleaning.

They already knew what to expect after using their home’s security cameras to watch from afar as the floodwater reached their home — but it was still hard to see the damage for themselves Thursday.

“We didn’t think this was gonna happen,” Oscar Ramirez said. “The levee was supposed to be fixed. This was an avoidable situation, unfortunately.”

Monterey County officials began allowing Pajaro residents to return to home Thursday, but warned there are still many hazards as a result of the flooding. It could be another week before the sewage system is turned on and safe to use, county spokesperson Nicholas M. Pasculli said, adding that it’s not clear when the water will be safe to drink again.

In the meantime, the county contracted with a company to provide laundry and showering facilities, as well as crates of bottled water, at Pajaro Park and Pajaro Middle School. At both locations Thursday, members of the Red Cross and other groups helped pass out cleaning kits and bags with towels and hygiene products.

“They’re happy that they’re able to go home. Some folks will go through this kind of emotional process when they go into some of their homes, because they’re not what they left,” Pasculli said. “We’re taking it one day at a time. We want to make sure that we take care of those immediate needs.”

Several state lawmakers from the region pressed Gov. Gavin Newsom this week to boost direct aid to Pajaro residents and local farmworkers affected by the floods and have requested that President Joe Biden issue an emergency disaster declaration.

As of Thursday morning, there were still 428 evacuees staying at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, according to Pasculli. Cal Fire officials said this week that 903 homes had been damaged, though only six structures were deemed unsafe for reentry; of those, three were residential and three were businesses. About 500 structures were completely untouched — mainly in the northern part of Pajaro, which is slightly more elevated.

Still, Pasculli urged caution as the floodwaters likely has contaminants from sewage and other sources. As part of the county’s outreach at Pajaro Park and the middle school, workers passed out mold cleanup booklets to help renters and homeowners figure out how to remove mud and flood-damaged items from their property.

For example, the booklet warned that homes that couldn’t be dried out within two to four days of flooding likely have mold, which could cause health problems from asthma attacks to infections. Monterey County officials advise that when possible, people should get help from professionals to remove all items that can’t be cleaned and dried out.

“If people choose to stay, we’re not going to stop them,” Pasculli said. “We’re recommending, if they had moderate to major damage, we really would prefer them to stay in the shelter, or with family and friends.”

On Thursday, many residents got to work cleaning up from the flood — wearing masks and gloves and with the help of family and friends. On Florence Avenue and Cayetano Street, driveways and sidewalks were filled with piles of mattresses, chairs, toys, blankets and dressers, among other items.

Red Cross members walked from home to home to ask how they could help residents. A row of portable toilets on Cayetano Street sat empty as a Monterey County Sheriff deputy drove past people shoveling a driveway.

Julie Ortiz describes the damage to her Pajaro home after the March 11 levee breach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Julie Ortiz lives with her parents in their home on Florence Avenue. While the portion of the home they occupy wasn’t damaged because it’s elevated, an attached unit they rent to four tenants was flooded, with water reaching about 2 feet high. Their garage was also flooded and mold is growing in the walls to the ceiling.

The tenants lost their furniture, their beds and most of their belongings.

“They have to start from scratch,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz, her parents, the tenants and a friend worked to scrape mud from the home and started piling the destroyed items in the street.

“I took today off work to be here because work can wait,” said Ortiz. “We’ve been trying to come here, and finally being here — it’s kind of hard.”

One of her tenants, Manuel Osorio De La Cruz, said it’s been very difficult as he and the other tenants have also been without work. The berry fields they work in were damaged by the flooding, so they’re waiting to hear when they’ll be able to return.

“We’re cleaning what we can and we’ll see what we do tomorrow,” he said in Spanish as he swept the mud from the patio outside the unit. “And if it doesn’t rain we’ll be able to work.”

Around the corner from Ortiz and De La Cruz, piles of trash bags collected outside of Maria Cadena’s home. The accessory dwelling unit in which Cadena and her 16-year-old son have lived for 13 years also saw floodwater reach almost 2 feet high. Similar to elsewhere in the neighborhood, the landlord’s portion of the home — which is elevated — had no damages.

“I’m throwing out everything,” she said in Spanish. “But the good thing is that we’re all OK.”

Since firefighters and law enforcement knocked on their door to evacuate, she’s been living with her parents and will be with them until the unit is cleaned up and mold is removed. She doesn’t know how long it will be until she and her son can return.

“He’s good, because staying with my family has been calm,” she said. “And the good thing is, he hasn’t seen any [of the damage] here yet.”

As Cadena went through soiled items in the bedroom, her two brothers and father cleaned the living room and kitchen. She teared up as she went through the clothes and items she had to throw out. Cadena thinks especially of a tall chest of drawers.

“I’ve had it since my son was born,” she said, crying. “Every time I would look at it, it would remind me of him. But there’s nothing to be done about it.”

—Christopher Neely contributed to this report.