Piecemeal approach to Pajaro aid leaves farmworkers, community straining to move forward

Pajaro resident Esperanza Esquivel discusses the impacts of the Pajaro River levee breach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

More aid to the residents of Pajaro is being patched together, but the gaps in help and communication are complicating post-flood recovery efforts. More than 100 people remain at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter as Pajaro evacuees have scattered throughout the area, seeking temporary housing. Meanwhile, many farmworkers’ jobs are in limbo as the flooded fields prevent work and have caused almost $50 million in farm loss, says Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau president Dennis Webb.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

More than a month after flooding ravaged the small city of Pajaro, bringing state and national attention, the process of recovery is still uneven and difficult.

While some residents of the Monterey County town just across the Pajaro River from Watsonville have found new permanent housing or received financial assistance after the river levee breach flooded homes, businesses and farmland, many individuals and families are still without basic needs. Stable housing, clothing and sources of income remain elusive. The farms that employ many of those residents are suffering financial losses approaching $50 million and have seen their own operations cut back, further meaning a loss of jobs and immediate income for both the businesses and their workers.

The city of Pajaro, home to over 3,000, saw about half of its residents evacuate since the March 11 breach. Officials lifted evacuation orders about two weeks later — finally allowing many to return home from the shelter or from staying with nearby relatives.

At its peak, the emergency shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds provided a temporary home to about 435 people. As of midnight Monday night, 145 people still remained, with the question of where the hundreds who left the shelter have gone.

Community-based organizations, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Monterey County officials say they don’t have clear data, or a thorough understanding, of where those people are going.

The wider sense of displacement hangs in the air.

Lookout has talked to Pajaro residents who can’t return to their homes because of the damage, residents who had to stay in the shelter for weeks while repairs were done. Some parents have had to separate from their children because temporary housing didn’t offer enough space.

Many of these residents, most of them employed in agriculture, also don’t know what they’ll do for work because the historic winter storms and the levee breach have damaged the fields or delayed the harvest. With the loss of income, finding alternative affordable housing in our expensive region has been nearly impossible for some residents.

And while there are dozens of organizations, from local nonprofits to FEMA, aiming to provide assistance, many Pajaro residents, Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo and some organizations say the help isn’t sufficient.

“I’m scared that the same thing will happen again. But I would go back because I have no other option.”

Esperanza Esquivel’s one-bedroom Pajaro apartment, where she lived for three years, was badly damaged in the flood. Her landlord told her it would take a year before it’s habitable again, with all the repairs to be finished. If given the opportunity to move back into that apartment, she would take it. But she said she would be terrified at the same time.

“I’m scared that the same thing will happen again,” she said in Spanish. “But I would go back because I have no other option.”

Esquivel has worked the past six years picking radicchio for J. Marchini Farms, where she makes about $2,800 each month. However, Esquivel was recently diagnosed with a disability and is currently receiving $1,700 in disability benefits.

Esquivel is among those whose FEMA aid application was approved — the agency OK’d $4,000 for property damage and $5,000 for rental assistance. Weeks after the flood and requests from California officials, President Joe Biden enabled that aid as he declared a major disaster April 3, opening up a wide range of federal assistance programs for Monterey and other affected counties.

Yet, Esquivel says, the money doesn’t come close to covering the costs of what she lost, making the payments for a new temporary apartment she found in Salinas and the payments and deposit needed for a new permanent residence that accommodates her and her three kids.

Pajaro resident Esperanza Esquivel shows a picture of the March 11 flood damage to her home.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She’s appealing her case, and in the meantime, her two daughters are staying with her sister in Watsonville; Esquivel and her son are living with another family in Salinas, where she pays $1,200 a month, plus the $1,200 deposit.

She’s been searching for an apartment in the area with a budget of about $1,400 for her and her three kids, but hasn’t found anything. Considering that rentals ask for the first month’s rent, the last month’s rent and a security deposit, it would cost her about $4,200 to get a new $1,400 apartment. That’s on top of the $2,400 she paid in rent and a deposit for the apartment in Salinas while she finds something permanent. Most available rentals that accommodate four people are above her $1,400 budget.

“The most painful thing is not being with my daughters,” she said.

FEMA public information officer Tiana Suber said that from the Biden declaration through Monday, a total of 881 Monterey County residents had submitted applications for the agency’s Individuals and Households Program.

Suber said FEMA doesn’t provide the number of applications approved because the number changes daily. Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli said as of Monday, 165 applications in Monterey County had been approved; Suber didn’t return a request to confirm that number. In dollars, Suber said a total of $997,264.58 in assistance had been approved for Monterey County through Monday. Though approved, not all those funds had yet been disbursed.

Esquivel says she sent her appeal to FEMA three weeks ago for more assistance, but hasn’t yet heard back yet. She still considers herself lucky compared to other people who were denied on their first attempts.

An attorney who has been providing legal aid in the region since 1989, Phyllis Katz has seen cases like Esquivel’s in past disasters.

“I think the major obstacle in every disaster and [in] working with FEMA is that people have to appeal in order to get the benefits they’re entitled to,” said Katz.

As the directing attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance for the Watsonville and Salinas areas, she helps low-income residents with legal issues related to housing, public benefits and education.

Katz recently spoke at a Monterey County Board of Supervisors meeting on behalf of Pajaro residents needing rent relief. On March 28, the board passed an ordinance placing a temporary prohibition on evictions through Aug. 31. It went into effect immediately.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Jimmy Panetta visited the banks of the Pajaro River on Wednesday in an effort to get the...

She said this ordinance protects residents from eviction if they provide a written statement to their landlords showing the following:

  • either a decrease in income or increase in expenses due to flooding of the Pajaro or Salinas rivers;
  • that they live in unincorporated Monterey County;
  • and that they need time to pay their rent.

Katz compiled information to distribute to residents, including a letter that residents could send to their landlords to explain the ordinance. There’s further complication around such evictions.

Landlords can still issue “pay or quit” notices to their tenants and file eviction lawsuits. With the new ordinance in place, though, a judge can block such action. What’s key is timing for those receiving such notices.

“It’s critical that tenants know that they have to respond to the court papers within the five days and raise the ordinance as a defense,” Katz said.

The harvest

Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau President Dennis Webb told Lookout this week that many fields won’t be producing this year because they are either simply too saturated, still need to be cleaned up or are still underwater.

“The critical time during the spring has been lost,” he said. “Of those fields that aren’t affected to that degree, the harvest is going to occur later in the year and it’s going to be a shorter growing season.”

The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro, seen March 13.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The growers in the area who employ thousands of residents in the Pajaro Valley are taking major hits to their businesses. Webb said the county’s agriculture industry has seen about $47 million in losses from the historically stormy winter months through the March 11 breach. He said it’s a shock to the industry.

“It’s really hard to watch, because we’re talking about predominantly small businesses and family farms and a lot of people that have been doing this for a long time,” he said. “Not all of them are going to make it through this. But that said, while no one’s used to flooding like this, farmers are no strangers to adversity — we’re a resilient bunch.”

He said a lot of the farmers who were most heavily affected are the strawberry growers. Across the region, Webb said about 1,800 acres saw a range of impacts.

Growers who have been reaching out to the bureau are primarily concerned about ensuring another levee breach doesn’t happen and connecting their farmworkers to assistance, according to Webb.

Dick Peixoto, who owns Lakeside Organic Gardens, runs and owns about 50 farms in the Pajaro Valley and on the Central Coast, with about 300 farmworkers working at this time during a normal year. Peixoto said that as of Tuesday, he had 100 workers employed across the farms.

Peixoto cites 20 acres of completely lost broccoli production as an indication of the area’s ag woes. Overall, he estimates a likely loss of about $1 million, given the costs of the flooding, cleanup, replanting and lost harvest.

The Pajaro River well below its banks
More than six weeks after it breached its levee and flooded the town of Pajaro, the Pajaro River was well below its banks this week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve been farming for about 45 years, and this is the wettest and the coldest year I’ve ever seen,” said Peixoto. “Some of the lettuce we should have harvested a month ago or so. That affects farmworkers, too, because they’re looking for more work and there’s just not that much out there, especially in the harvesting.”

He said he has submitted two separate applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting aid broadly for erosion and infrastructure damages.

“What we’ll get from those, I have no idea,” he said. “They’re very slow. I don’t expect anything for months or years.”

Aid for undocumented residents

Webb said the bureau helps connect growers with the agencies that are providing resources to their affected employees.

Many of the farmworkers are undocumented and have limited options if they have been unable to return to work for the region’s growers. While community-based organizations like Community Bridges have provided $500 debit cards to many impacted families, the money is quickly exhausted on basic needs.

Community Bridges spokesperson Tony Nuñez said the organization has distributed more than $650,000 to families and has also been helping affected residents apply for FEMA aid.

Pajaro residents stocked up on water and other supplies as they returned home
Pajaro residents stocked up on water and other supplies as they returned home March 23.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Because families who don’t have a Social Security number don’t qualify for FEMA relief, local elected officials are working to create assistance programs to ensure families are provided emergency funds. If a family includes a minor with a Social Security number, that family is allowed to apply for FEMA aid.

Lookout spoke to one undocumented single mother staying at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter who had applied, using her daughter’s Social Security identification, but who had seen her application denied.

She said she could appeal but that the process was too long and arduous, and that she needs help immediately. She said FEMA asked for more proof of the damages to her apartment, but said she had already thrown the furniture away.

“They’re asking us for a lot to help us just a little,” she said in Spanish.

Monterey County Supervisor Alejo and several California state legislators, including Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez and Speaker-Designate Robert Rivas, have been pushing to create funds specifically for undocumented residents. However, creating the funds and allocating the money takes time.

“I’m glad that there’s a lot of resources coming to the residents of Pajaro,” said Alejo. “Obviously, there continues to be a lot of need, a lot of suffering, a lot of families that are displaced. Every day, we’re continuing to help families connect to resources from my office directly.”

Alejo celebrated one additional form of relief for Pajaro residents Tuesday evening after the Monterey County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a program that will provide $750 per eligible household.

The Monterey County Disaster Assistance Fund will be administered by Catholic Charities and United Way. Alejo said the program will start in the next several days.

“I’m pleased that we finally got this county disaster assistance out to Pajaro and other flood victims after trying at the board of supervisors for the last five weeks,” he said. “This financial assistance will be outside of any provided by FEMA or the state.”

As for the legislation co-authored by Rivas, whose district covers parts of Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Clara and San Benito counties, Assembly Bill 513 would establish the California Individual Assistance Act. This bill would allow the state to provide direct relief to families and individuals not eligible for federal disaster assistance.

During an April 18 news conference highlighting the bill, Rivas said the resources allocated to families “hasn’t been enough.”

“Residents, families that have been displaced have nowhere to go. Residents are suffering from ongoing respiratory infections because contamination from floodwaters has polluted their homes, and now that the air that they breathe while at home is toxic, it’s a problem,” he said. “They need our help, and it’s the right thing to do to support them any way that we can.”

Red Cross volunteers helping to distribute supplies to returning Pajaro evacuees.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)