Pajaro resident Maria Cacho stands in front of the Rodeway Inn in Watsonville.
Pajaro resident Maria Cacho stands in front of the Rodeway Inn in Watsonville.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Storms 2023: Road to Recovery

Months after Pajaro levee breach, hundreds of flood evacuees are still living in hotels, waiting to return home

“You go to sleep living one life, then you wake up living another,” says one Pajaro resident whose family of seven has been in limbo since the March floods. While they’ve received help from FEMA and local agencies, the high cost of living and the uneven post-flood response has them confused and worried.

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Sitting in a cramped storage room in the lobby of the Rodeway Inn on the west side of Highway 1 in Watsonville, Maria Cacho broke down as she described the tumultuous journey her family of seven has been on since the Pajaro River levee breach forced them to leave their home more than three months ago.

They’ve been staying at the hotel since early May after the mobile home they live in — which is part of an affordable housing community owned by Monterey County — was damaged by the floodwater.

“I’ve been through so many things — I’ve always been able to get my family through them,” Cacho said in Spanish. “But right now, this is out of my control. It’s almost as if my hands are tied.”

While many Pajaro residents returned to their homes weeks after the March levee breach, Cacho and her family are among the estimated 240 to 250 people still staying in Watsonville hotels through a shelter program set up by Monterey County as they wait for repairs to be done to their homes.

Since the levee breach, the family has slept in their car and spent weeks moving from hotel to hotel, scrambling for ways to pay for the lodging. They settled into the Rodeway Inn as part of the shelter program, which Monterey County launched when the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds shelter closed in late May.

Cacho and her daughter Edith Magallon, 25, feel some relief having a more stable housing situation. But their struggles in the months after the levee breach show the wide-ranging impacts of an environmental disaster on vulnerable families and the fog of confusion that sets in as disaster victims, government agencies and nonprofit organizations all try to manage an evolving situation.

“You go to sleep living one life, then you wake up living another,” Cacho said.

Cacho and Magallon say they’re grateful for the support they’ve received — a total of three debit cards of between $500 and $700; $7,000 for rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the county’s shelter program. The Salvation Army paid for one week of their hotel stays. But the help doesn’t come close to what their family needs.

They’ve burned through their savings and are now going into debt to pay for the costs of living temporarily in hotels since mid-March. The family currently lives on the $5,000 that Magallon and her stepdad earn monthly. Magallon works at an auto service company and her dad works two jobs as a chef in Felton.

One of Magallon’s brothers works part-time at a gas station, making about $1,200 a month that he uses to pay his own expenses. Cacho stopped working to take care of her 10- and 7-year-old sons and to focus on navigating the recovery process — filing applications with FEMA and looking for other housing options in case they can’t return to their trailer. The person who used to take care of her kids while she worked is now in a situation similar to Cacho’s after the levee breach.

Maria Cacho shows a picture of her sons playing in their backyard in Pajaro.
Maria Cacho shows a picture of her sons playing in their backyard in Pajaro.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Without a kitchen in their crowded hotel room, the family of seven spends about $250 a day on eating out. As part of the shelter program, the county delivers cold food to Pajaro residents staying at the hotel.

Magallon said the program brings dinner for that day and breakfast and lunch for the following day, but because the hotel fridge is very small, the food doesn’t all fit and often goes bad. She said her family had to sign a form saying that they wouldn’t have a knife in the hotel — further limiting their ability to prepare food.

“Yesterday they brought Erik’s Deli. It’s white bread, two sausages, pre-cooked potatoes, pre-cooked eggs,” Magallon said earlier this month. “It’s sandwiches and soup from there. Those aren’t good the next day.”

Cacho suspects she got a stomach infection from eating poorly — she was vomiting and she had diarrhea. Her doctor told her she was dehydrated. Her youngest two sons have gotten sick about three times in the past month — more than usual. All these factors led them to start buying hot food.

“We don’t want to be ungrateful, but it’s food that we’re not used to,” she said. “I just want to cook food and give it to my kids.”

Other monthly expenses include about $1,200 in gas for their three cars, $1,045 for two car payments, $350 for car insurance, $200 for cellphones and at least $300 for other essentials like hygiene products.

Their gas expenses are high because Magallon’s stepdad drives to Felton for work every day, Cacho drives the youngest sons to school and back, and Cacho and Magallon also share their cars with two oldest sons. They take one of the oldest sons to his job working at a gas station and they take their other older son to his classes at Cabrillo College.

With mounting debts and not enough financial assistance to find another housing option, the family doesn’t see how it could be possible to find another home.

Pajaro residents Edith Magallon and Maria Cacho sit in a storage room at the Rodeway Inn in Watsonville.
Pajaro residents Edith Magallon and Maria Cacho sit in a storage room at the Rodeway Inn in Watsonville.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That’s a growing concern, considering the conflicting information the family has received about when they and other evacuees could be allowed to return to the community of 18 trailers on Kents Court, just south of Pajaro, and how long they can continue to stay at the hotel.

Monterey County — which owns the mobile home — initially told the family that they could move back into their trailer June 15. Weeks later, the county gave them a new date of July 25.

The mobile homes are elevated several feet off the ground, so the floodwater didn’t enter the trailers or cause damage to their interiors. The damages from the flood were to the connections under and around the trailers.

Cacho’s family qualified for living in the affordable housing project because of their low-income status. They lived with their five other family members in the three-bedroom trailer, paying $1,086 a month in rent.

Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli said the county is repairing minor damages to the trailers, such as replacing or repairing heating ducts.

The county had actually planned to renovate the mobile homes prior to the levee breach. The winter storms postponed the start of renovations, but they’re still expected to happen — at which point families might have to move out of their homes once again while the work is being done.

Pasculli said the scope and a new timeline for the renovations will be presented to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors at its June 27 meeting. He said the details of that plan — including whether or not families will have to move out — won’t be public until that meeting. He said the goal is to have families back in the mobile homes on July 25 and that the renovations would include families moving out temporarily, but that he didn’t have more details.

To add to the family’s confusion, on Wednesday, Monterey County Communications Coordinator Maia Carroll told Lookout that the hotel shelter program is ending at the end of June. That means Cacho’s family would have to leave the Rodeway Inn at the end of the month, whether or not their trailer is ready for them. Carroll said the county had already informed residents in the program of that end date but didn’t say when.

The following morning, the county sent a press release out saying that the program would run until July 30 — giving the family another month in the hotel.

The family says county officials have also asked them to keep a log to prove that they’re searching for other permanent housing options, something that caused them alarm given they were expecting to move back into their trailer this summer.

Maria Cacho shows a photo of the mud from the March 11 Pajaro River levee breach left in her family's backyard.
Maria Cacho shows a photo of the mud from the March 11 Pajaro River levee breach left in her family’s backyard.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“If they tell us that the trailer will be ready for us to move back in soon, then why tell us to look for other housing?” asked Magallon.

Monterey County Housing Program Analyst Darby Marshall said the request for a log of the tenants’ search for housing is part of the county’s efforts to get reimbursed by FEMA.

Through Thursday, the county had spent $1 million on the hotel shelter program for affected Pajaro residents. Officials say federal and state support for that program is pending.

The family doesn’t know what will happen if they can’t get back into their home before the hotel shelter program ends.

The FEMA rental assistance of $7,000 they were approved for isn’t enough for their family of seven on their income to find another home. A three-bedroom rental Cacho visited cost $4,200 a month. The owner asked for a $3,000 deposit plus first and last month’s rent — bringing the family $3,500 short after using the FEMA support.

Cacho said local organizations have pointed them toward affordable housing options, but the waitlists for those programs are discouraging.

An affordable housing organization based in Oakland, Eden Housing, owns and manages two apartment complexes in the region — one in Watsonville and one in Pajaro.

Chief Operating Officer Shola Olatoye said the flooding in Pajaro exacerbated the already challenging housing situation. There are just three vacancies at its 63-unit apartment complex Nuevo Amanecer in Pajaro, and Eden Housing staff is working through a waitlist of 450 applicants, she said.

Delia Bernal, nutrition program manager at Second Harvest Food Bank, met Cacho while providing hot meals to Pajaro residents in the weeks after the levee breach. Since then, she has continued to stay in touch with Cacho, and with the help of some community members has pitched in several nights of hotel stays for the family.

“She feels that she has been abandoned,” Bernal said of Cacho.

Bernal said Monterey County’s first priority should be to ensure that all displaced Pajaro residents get back into homes. “Even if it’s in Castroville, Salinas,” she said.

Cacho doesn’t know what she’ll do if the family can’t return to their home soon or if they don’t find an alternative affordable option. She has considered having some of her family move to Seattle to live with her sister, but no one in the family wants to leave the region or be separated. She is still planning to apply again to FEMA for more rental assistance.

Still, after months of transient living, members of the family say the levee breach and the resulting disruption have torn apart what was once a tightly knit community on Kents Court. There, if a neighbor was eating dinner alone, her family would invite them over to eat, Magallon said. Her younger brothers played with other children in the community. One of the neighbors became the godmother of her two younger brothers.

“If there was a party, the neighbors were invited. If something happened, like somebody fell down the stairs, the neighbor was there to pick you up. We are all like that,” said Magallon. “We are not blood related, but we care for each other. So when [the flood] happened, it was very hard, because how can you help your neighbor if you can’t even help yourself?”

FOR THE RECORD: This story was updated to correct the rent amount Cacho’s family pays. The family pays $1,086 monthly for their mobile home.