In recent weeks, Merced neighbors Mariya Nelson and Beth Lee have been busy with more than just rebuilding their storm-battered homes.
After a series of break-ins, they are now the de facto neighborhood watch for a strip of affluent homes that stretches along a road that adjoins Bear Creek, which has flooded several times in recent weeks during the series of storms. Of California.
They were forced to leave their homes in early January when more than a meter of water displaced them.
Then came the robberies. Nelson, 33, counts at least seven attempts at his house.
“They hit us hard,” he said.
Rain and strong winds flooded Merced Tuesday, with some areas under an evacuation warning and the threat of more damage on the horizon. Sandbags line the driveway of Nelson’s home, and a tarp covers part of the roof, which collapsed in recent downpours.
She said she had been in this house “almost 25 years, and no one had ever entered it.” Now, with yet another evacuation warning issued for her neighborhood, Nelson has seen a surge in trespass attempts.
Nelson said a would-be burglar parked in his driveway Tuesday morning in daylight and drove up to his house. The individual only got away, he said, when he appeared at the door.
“My house is full of children,” he added, fearing for their safety.
Lee, 53, is no stranger to disasters. He lost his previous home in the 2020 Creek fire and used the insurance proceeds to purchase his current home.
The defense attorney is currently residing in a rental while her home is being repaired. But she said recent burglaries of hers, coupled with flood warnings, prompted her to stay home.
Count at least nine attempted break-ins in the past two months.
“We started putting the house back together” after the last flood “and had to stop again” because of the recent flood warning, he said.
Now the house is empty, and two storage units in the driveway have her belongings, or did, before the thieves managed to break in and take what they could.
When she bought this house on the river, Lee knew it was in a flood zone, but said she reasoned with herself that “we were in a drought.”
Reflecting on the experience of suffering a catastrophic fire and then a flood in three years, he shrugged. “I guess this is climate change?”
Nearby, at the Merced County Fairgrounds, two large gymnasiums were converted into emergency shelters for those displaced by the storms.
The 200 available beds were empty Tuesday night. John Ceccoli, a spokesman for the Merced County Human Services Agency, said the facility had seen a maximum of 36 people at a time since it reopened last week.
More than 600 people stayed at the facility during heavy storms in January, it added. As sheets of rain fell outside Tuesday afternoon, workers wondered if another flood was coming.
“I had never followed the weather so closely in my life,” Ceccoli said.
In nearby Planada, El Gallito bakery has stayed open through a handful of storms.
The bakery was flooded along with the town at the end of January. Now the store’s doors are protected by sandbags and tarpaulins, and the family that runs it has also worked to protect their home from flooding. Flood-damaged appliances, over a foot tall and containing sewage, have mostly been replaced, thanks in part to community support on GoFundMe.
A pantry at the front of the store is remarkably top-heavy, with the lower shelves nearly empty. Every day at closing time, family members remove products from the lower shelves and place them on the counters, fearful of losing inventory again.
Keeping the business running is essential, said Leonardo Villagómez, son of owners Luis and Estella Villagómez.
The family needs the income.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.
Times Staff Writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.