Monterey County shelter at Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds to close Monday

A Pajaro Valley Unified School District bus leaves the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds after dropping off students in March.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As of Friday, 17 people remained at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter that opened to accommodate residents displaced by the devastating flooding in nearby Pajaro, down from a peak of 435 on March 21. A spokesperson said all 17 would have emergency housing provided before the shelter closes Monday.

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Just over two months after the Pajaro River levee breached and flooded the community of Pajaro, officials in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties are set to close the emergency shelter at the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds on Monday.

At its peak on March 21, the shelter housed 435 people. As of Friday, there were 17 people there. Of those, 11 were Santa Cruz County residents and six were Monterey County residents. Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli said all 17 would have emergency housing provided before the shelter closes Monday.

The fairgrounds had far fewer cars in the parking lot and far fewer people on the premises Friday than during previous weeks. One man rode a bike around the parking lot and courtyard, and different social organizations remained stationed inside one of the shelter buildings.

Pasculli told Lookout that a wide range of organizations, including local nonprofits, state agencies and the Red Cross have been working with the shelter residents to find temporary housing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also been assisting in providing rental assistance.

He said he didn’t have data showing where the hundreds of people who have stayed at the shelter are currently or how many have been able to return to live in their homes. However, as of Wednesday, he said 113 people were staying in three different Watsonville hotels.

Pasculli said the local nonprofits, the Red Cross and government agencies are providing emergency housing vouchers for those families to pay for their hotel stays. Case managers from either Monterey County or those organizations are reviewing each case and providing rental assistance based on the need, Pasculli said.

“There is a plan to make sure folks have a place to go,” he said. “Throughout this recovery period, as we’ve all always said, and FEMA has said, that recovery period is not something that happens quick, it’s something that happens over time.”

Some Pajaro families say they are still experiencing incredible need and aren’t sure where they’ll get the rental assistance or financial help to repair damages to their homes. While Pasculli says people are getting assistance through case managers from nonprofits and government agencies, there are still families that haven’t been able to secure long-term rental assistance.

Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez
Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez, stayed with family in Watsonville after evacuating from Pajaro following the March 11 levee breach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Norma Estrada, her husband and five kids don’t know when they’ll be able to go back to their trailer after it was badly flooded. After evacuating March 11, they stayed with her brother in Watsonville until two weeks ago. In addition to her brother’s family, there were a total of 17 people in the one-bedroom apartment.

Now, Estrada and her family are staying in a one-bedroom apartment in a women’s shelter in Watsonville. She said they’ll soon have to provide a deposit and pay rent there, but she doesn’t know how much. They also continue to pay $550 monthly for the mortgage on their trailer in Pajaro.

“I’m OK. I’m a little stressed,” she said in Spanish. “I’m worried that they’ll kick us out because we don’t have money — and then I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Estrada said FEMA approved her for an initial amount of $6,000, but it doesn’t cover all the costs to repair her trailer to make it habitable again, or for all the furniture and clothing the family lost.

She is trying to get a contractor to assess the costs of the repairs for her trailer before appealing to FEMA for more assistance. Estrada said she also received $550 from La Manzana, a family resource center run by nonprofit Community Bridges.

Without the money to pay for repairs for her trailer, she doesn’t know when she and her family will be able to go back home.