Left in limbo by Pajaro levee breach, families struggle with disrupted lives and school

Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez
Norma Estrada, Rafael Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez, have been staying with family in Watsonville since evacuating from Pajaro on Friday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The flooding of the community of Pajaro has left many families without incomes and potentially without homes to return to, and disrupted instruction for about 900 students in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated after the Pajaro River levee failed over the weekend, leaving residents with no idea when they’ll be allowed to return.

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Anali Cortez stood for hours Tuesday afternoon on the Watsonville side of the Pajaro River, just in sight of her family’s apartment building on the Pajaro side.

Like the other residents of the small agricultural community, Cortez doesn’t know when she’ll be able to go back to her home and routine after the river breached around midnight Friday night into Saturday, flooding the town of about 3,500.

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“It’s scary,” 17-year-old Cortez said of the uncertainties.

The flooding of the Pajaro community has left families without incomes, potentially without homes to return to and disrupted instruction for about 900 students in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. All 420 students of Pajaro Middle School, which is located in the town of Pajaro, will be having instruction at Lakeview Middle School for likely the rest of the year because of flooding damages at Pajaro Middle, according to Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez.

At a Tuesday news conference, Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli said flooded areas in Pajaro remain under evacuation orders, and that there is no clear-cut timeline for when homes could be repopulated.

Once the water recedes — and it was unclear when that would happen — officials will have to assess whether the homes are safe enough to return to; they warned that some might be uninhabitable. In addition, officials said it could take a week or more to repair the Pajaro River levee to its full height and width, with crews working 24/7.

“It’s not going to be a matter of days,” Pasculli said during a Monday news conference.

Anali Cortez, 17, and her family evacuated from Pajaro around 1 a.m. Saturday and haven't been able to return.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Officials said they evacuated about 2,000 people from the community of over 3,500, including 800 homes and two mobile home parks. The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter held more than 300 evacuees Tuesday, Cabrillo College had about 30 evacuees and the Watsonville Veterans Memorial Building was also open as an alternative shelter.

Cortez said after her family left their home around 1 a.m. Saturday morning, they slept in their car in an Applebee’s parking lot in Watsonville. At around 6 a.m., they tried to return home but were turned around by law enforcement. The family then stayed with her aunt in Stockton the next two nights before returning to Watsonville with the hope that they might be let back in. Monday night and Tuesday night, they stayed in a hotel because the fairgrounds shelter was at capacity.

Cortez and others stood Tuesday afternoon on Main Street on the Watsonville side of the bridge over the Pajaro River, hoping to be let back into their community by law enforcement, who were blocking entry to Pajaro with cruisers and yellow caution tape.

On the other side of the yellow caution tape were Pajaro residents who didn’t evacuate and have been allowed to stay. People from the Watsonville side passed crates of water bottles over to Pajaro residents still on the Pajaro side of the caution tape as the town is under a “do not drink” order and has no access to potable water.

Pajaro residents who did not evacuate amid last weekend's flooding bring back bottled water from Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In Pajaro, the water had receded significantly since earlier this week, but parts of the community remained inundated. The town appeared almost completely abandoned except for a few residents sitting on porches or riding bikes. Businesses are shuttered and sandbags lined doorsteps and garages.

Cortez said the water didn’t damage the apartment building her parents and her five other siblings live in. They live on the second story of the building, but they’re nevertheless prohibited from going home. Cortez said her family hopes to be allowed home soon to be able to feed their three birds and to get insulin her father takes for his diabetes.

Flooded streets on the north side of Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

During a Monday media briefing, Monterey County Undersheriff Keith Boyd said allowing people into the evacuation order zone to get medication is complicated.

“For us to allow individuals to enter that area, if it’s in its current state, current conditions, we would in essence be allowing them to put their lives at risk in contradiction of our evacuation order,” he said. “I think it’s a little early right now to have a ballpark idea. The situation is constantly changing.”

A senior at Pacific Coast Charter School in Watsonville, Cortez said she hasn’t been able to go to school this week.

“I’m a senior, but it does affect me,” she said about missing school. “I need to finish my credits and with this going on, I can’t really be in school.”

PVUSD Superintendent Rodriguez said the district has been working to support families’ needs since the breach. Families who for various reasons have kids that aren’t going to in-person class, or who have left to stay with extended family members in other cities, can continue to engage with the district through independent study.

“We’ll be flexible with families and of course support them as needed,” she said.

For some families, the lengthy wait to return home was becoming unbearable. Since Norma Estrada and Rafael Jimenez were evacuated from their mobile home Friday night with their five kids, they have been staying in Estrada’s brother’s home in Watsonville. In that one-bedroom apartment, there are now 17 people with Estrada and Jimenez and their kids. They sleep on the floor of the kitchen and the living room.

Because of their circumstances — including only one change of clothes, provided by Watsonville-based not-for-profit Raíces y Cariño — Estrada said her four kids who attend PVUSD schools are too scared to go to school.

“We’re going to call to talk to their teachers, to see what we can do,” said Estrada, speaking in Spanish.

Estrada, Jimenez and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochitl Jimenez, also stood on the Watsonville side of the Pajaro River on Tuesday afternoon, looking across at their community in the hope that they would be let through the roadblocks. Estrada and Jimenez said they’ve lived in the same mobile home for about 20 years. They imagine the trailer won’t be able to survive the damage of the flooding.

“It’s very difficult,” said Estrada. “It’s traumatic for my kids. But we’re going to fight to get through this.”

— Max Chun contributed to this report.
FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to clarify the status of Raíces y Cariño; it is a not-for-profit LLC.


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