Watsonville residents near Pajaro River tributaries seek answers in aftermath of Santa Cruz County storms

A worker from FEMA talks to Sumiko Livin on Argos Circle.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those who live in the lowest-lying areas adjacent to the Pajaro River’s tributaries knew that flooding was a possibility, but most had never seen it for themselves. When a weather system predicted to drop far less rainfall than it did arrived on New Year’s Eve, it created a perfect storm of chaos for many residents — particularly some of the area’s oldest and most vulnerable in the neighborhood known as The Villages.

Sumiko Livin was red-hot on the day the president touched down in Watsonville.

The diminutive 81-year-old native of Okinawa, Japan, was weary; she hadn’t slept well for days in her hotel bed.

Displaced from her Watsonville home two weeks earlier, she was still recovering from the double sucker punch of losing her husband in October and then dealing with the New Year’s Eve flood that ravaged the home where they had been living out their golden years the past three decades.

Livin struggles to express her feelings in English. But when told that President Joe Biden was only a few miles away from where her home of 33 years stands, red-tagged from the quickly accumulating mold, Livin stopped pacing across her Best Western Inn room. She grabbed the arm of her visitor tightly.

Sumiko Livin, 83, shows a visitor to her Best Western hotel room a picture of her husband, who died in October.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Can you take me to him? Right now?” she asked. Her big brown eyes displayed a combination of exasperation and anguish.

“He needs to know this is not how seniors should be treated,” she said.

As Santa Cruz County digs out from nature’s New Year’s wrath, residents of Livin’s neighborhood of Argos Circle — part of an area of Watsonville known as The Villages — are among the angriest flooding victims in the Pajaro Valley, many of whom are lower-income residents and older adults.

While neighbors scramble for emergency assistance, many are asking why they didn’t receive better communication and outreach before the floodwaters rose and why it took days for anyone to check on the area’s vulnerable seniors.

They are also wondering whether local government infrastructure was prepared to handle the sheer volume of water that fell on a neighborhood that has flooded repeatedly over the years. Neighborhoods here blame the New Year’s Eve flooding on what they believe was a failure of the county’s stormwater pump system used to head off such flood events.

Last year, voters approved a special property tax assessment to help pay to rebuild the Pajaro River levee to protect the area from flooding. But those repairs aren’t scheduled to begin until 2025. Now, the recent storms are raising doubts among some residents about how local officials plan to protect them from future floods before the levee project is completed in a decade.

“I feel like we’re not being taken care of, that we failed,” middle school science teacher Michelle Deering, who said she escaped her Laken Drive home by kayak on Dec. 31, told a meeting of city and county stakeholders on Jan. 11.

“I know Mother Nature can pack a punch,” she added. “But we should be completely prepared for this. I want to see the plan — what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

City officials blame the flooding and lack of communication on inadequate infrastructure and inaccurate weather forecasts that predicted the heaviest rains wouldn’t hit the region until days after New Year’s Eve.

They say the stormwater pump system functioned properly, but was simply overwhelmed by the amount of rain that fell. And they argue that they have learned important lessons from the storms about how to improve communication among government agencies responsible for protecting residents during such natural disasters.

“I know today it doesn’t feel like it,” Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides told Lookout. “But in the future we’ll be better positioned to provide the protection that our residents want and deserve.”

Exasperation on Argos Circle

Like much of southern Watsonville and the small town of Pajaro across the river, the unassuming senior village homes of Argos Circle sits in a flood plain, adjacent to Salsipuedes Creek and the Pajaro River levee a few blocks away.

The threat of flooding is always there, but even longtime residents had never endured it. And on New Year’s Eve, no one was predicting it — not even the National Weather Service.

It was an otherwise quiet holiday evening in the 55-plus community when around 8 p.m., inches of accumulating water quickly turned into feet on Argos Circle, putting dozens of older adults — many living alone and in compromised health — in harm’s way.

Sean Dobbs and neighbor Sumiko Livin share an embrace in the aftermath of the Dec. 31 storm.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As several feet of muddy water engulfed vehicles outside and began seeping into living rooms, neighbors say the only saving grace was the spirit of the tight-knit community that looks out for its most vulnerable residents.

Livin’s next-door neighbor, Patti Dobbs-McKenna, and her brother, Sean, consider Livin to be family. Their mother, Lillian, lost her husband only months before Livin lost hers, so the two octogenarians have forged a close bond. But unlike Lillian Dobbs, when Livin lost her husband, she lost her only family in the area.

“Like a lot of seniors, Sumiko doesn’t even have a computer or smartphone, so how was anybody supposed to contact her?” said Dobbs-McKenna. “My husband called the city, he was calling everybody, the police department, fire department, saying, ‘We need help over here getting these senior citizens out.’ It was, ‘Well, right now we’re kind of busy’ and, ‘We’ll get back to you — they’re not in the office right now.’”

The muddy flood waters inside the home of Roger Serpa on New Year's Eve.
(Via Roger Serpa)

Roger Serpa, who lives a few houses down from Livin, said he got nervous as the water level rose so quickly.

He said he checked in on Livin, who refused to leave her house for two days. He even brought her some pizza. “She had made the promise to her husband on his deathbed,” he said. “She didn’t want to go.”

Like many others who were affected on Argos Circle that night, Serpa said he was most surprised at the lack of outreach by the city in the days after.

He began immediately removing flood water and the affected drywall in his house to avoid the quick-growing mold infestation that most others are now dealing with via insurance and help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

While city workers showed up several days later to help clear the giant mounds of mud in the street with a bulldozer, Serpa said no one from the city or the county came to check on the older adults for five days after the floods.

“Finally on Thursday, there were some volunteers coming around with fliers that told people where they could get sand bags,” he said. “But nobody had come in and knocked on doors and checked on our seniors — that’s what had pissed me off.”

‘No good engineering solution’

While city officials say they understand the frustration around communication and outreach in the senior neighborhoods like Argos Circle, they believe they did the best they could given the surprise rainfall levels coming on the holiday.

“We mobilized and had police and fire all around that area,” Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino told Lookout. “And then we had volunteers with fliers going door to door with information about sandbags and the warning system and signing up for reverse 911 calls. Everybody has concerns for that area because a lot of times they don’t have anyone to help.”

Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino and Reps. Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren await President Joe Biden
From left, Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino and Reps. Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren await President Joe Biden at Watsonville Municipal Airport.
(Via City of Watsonville)

Local officials also point the finger at the National Weather Service, which didn’t predict precipitation levels that could cause flooding, leaving them little time to prepare. They say the current stormwater drainage system is simply not capable of handling the amount of water that fell and caused Corralitos Creek to overflow on New Year’s Eve.

At a meeting of the Pajaro Regional Flood Risk Management Agency (PRFMA) on Jan. 11, the agency’s executive director, Mark Strudley, presented a detailed look at the earliest storms and how they had manifested in Watsonville’s most vulnerable locations.

And he showed the specifics of how the Dec. 31 storm had overperformed NWS projections and the following weekend’s underperformed. Such is the volatility of models.

Strudley emphasized in a followup interview with Lookout that the short-term fixes that can prepare that zone for future unpredictable weather events are limited: “There isn’t a good engineering solution until you get to the long-term fixes.”

Mark Strudley holds court on Jan. 11 in a board meeting of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

He said with the combined amount of water and debris flowing during storms like that of Dec. 31, the current capacity of those tributaries and the pump system designed to help mitigate minor flow surges is simply insufficient.

Watsonville officials Vides and Montesino agreed, saying the city’s belief is that the system was simply overwhelmed — and that a complex tangle of agencies responsible for responding to such incidents hadn’t been tasked to do so before the onslaught of storms.

“If there was any positives to this, it’s that we’re all communicating better in terms of personnel and who’s monitoring rainfall totals and cleaning out the creeks beforehand and those things,” Montesino said. “Everything is on the table when it comes to seeing how we can prevent this from happening again.”

Asked for her confidence level that any extreme weather events over next three years could play out differently, Vides says there will need to be hard conversations among all the overlapping stakeholders — city, county, PRFMA — to figure out what short-term safeguards they have yet to pinpoint.

“We know that the infrastructure as designed was inoptimal so I’m interested in continuing those conversations to make sure we’re considering every possibility,” she said. “All options need to be explored.”

Paying ahead for future promises

Residents of Argos Circle say their frustration over the city’s storm response stems in part from a decision by the roughly 3,000 residents who have been vulnerable to flooding in low-lying areas for more than four decades to tax themselves last June to rebuild the Pajaro River levee.

Patti Dobbs-McKenna lovingly hugs her neighbor Sumiko Livin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That vote was the final piece of the puzzle in pushing forward a $400 million project that promises to cut their onerous insurance bill along with the long-overdue boost in flood protection. But even as those payments are being made now toward a brighter future, it can’t help the current reality.

The milestone project that will finally fix the flooding issues that have wreaked havoc on the Pajaro Valley for nearly a half-century won’t break ground until 2025. It will likely take a decade to complete.

The newly created Pajaro Regional Flood Risk Management Project, formed to help shepherd through the changes drawn up in concert with the Army Corps of Engineers, is in the active planning phase.

But Strudley is, at this point, its only employee, and figuring out how the multiagency collaboration works remains a process. If there is an upside to the flooding of Dec. 31, he said, it’s confirmation that the agency had its priorities correct.

The first part of the flour-phase project will address the areas that flooded on New Year’s Eve between Green Valley Road and Highway 152 — including those figuring out their current plight along Argos Circle.

On Argos Circle, (from left) Sumiko Livin, Lillian Dobbs and Patti Dobbs-McKenna speak with a FEMA representative.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But until the project is finished, Strudley says, questions remain about how best to protect the area from future floods. “The answer is not a good one — it’s about playing triage and the evacuation game if we hit these kinds of storm systems again,” he said. “There is no simple fix.”

That’s cold comfort to residents of the neighborhood as they dig out, clean up and figure out what their financial hit will be from this latest series of storms. They worry about how older adults like Livin, who refused to leave that night after promising her late husband she would never move from their home, will do next time if the flooding is even more severe.

“There was nobody here except neighbors taking care of neighbors,” said Dobbs-McKenna, Livin’s next-door neighbor. “It made me angry. It made me cry.”

Argos Circle in The Villages neighborhood isn't far from the Pajaro River and its tributary, Corralitos Creek.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)