Dora Álvarez, 54, stood on the balcony of her two-story apartment building in the flooded city of Pájaro, holding a garden hose next to a rain gutter, swinging the hose toward a rain barrel below so that it your family use it for cooking and drinking after boiling it
“As long as they don’t turn off the gas, we’ll be fine,” he said Tuesday.
Alvarez and his family, as well as his next-door neighbor, were among several residents who chose not to evacuate the small immigrant town that was flooded when the levee failed last weekend, forcing hundreds of residents to flee. from their homes.
“I know some people criticize us for not leaving, but the danger of flooding isn’t here, it’s somewhere else,” Alvarez said, pointing south toward Salinas Road, which was submerged in water.
Standing nearby, her neighbor, Karla Loreto, 35, nodded in agreement.
“We are not going to wander around looking for danger either,” Loreto said.
Álvarez said that many families refused to leave because of what happened in January, when many of the town’s residents were evacuated. She said many residents returned to find their homes had been broken into.
She was left behind this time in part due to her husband’s health. She has liver cancer and has to see her doctor once a week for chemotherapy. The next appointment is this coming Sunday.
“COVID represents a threat to him,” Álvarez said. “We can’t be in a shelter right now, not with his immune system so weak.”
“It’s better for us to be here in our own home,” he added, “sleeping in our beds and eating the food we have in our fridge.”
The town seemed lifeless. Sandbags were placed at the entrances of bars, beauty salons and butcher shops. Around the area, the streets had turned into miniature lakes. The water covered the tires of the parked cars; water gushed out from under the manhole covers. Potatoes, lemons and the remains of food containers lay in the streets where the water had receded.
Alvarez looked at two sheriff’s patrol cars parked in the middle of the road near a bridge. He couldn’t understand why they couldn’t allow the residents to return to the upper level apartments or move away from the flooded areas. Why couldn’t they just let people go in and out to buy food and water? he wondered. Or maybe just give them those necessities, he added.
“I’m from Mexico,” he said. “We are used to dealing with disasters there. We know how to survive. We just need a little support.”
Álvarez is no stranger to flooding here. He said that in 1995, two years after arriving from Mexico, water covered the town.
“It took me two months to come home,” he recalled. “Two months. Can you imagine coming home and having to throw away all the food you bought and not having a job?
He felt that the recent storms that had caused the levee to break were worse. Strawberries, cabbage, and broccoli grown in the region were likely destroyed. Work would disappear again.
Loreto, her neighbor, looked down at the parking lot.
“I work at the gas station behind this building,” he said, indicating the direction with his thumb. “I don’t know when that gas station will open.”
Pajaro flooded last week during heavy storms that caused the levee to break. It could take months to make repairs in the immigrant town near Watsonville. Now another storm was approaching, bringing new anxieties.
Sheriff’s troopers and the National Guard patrolled the area. Reporters stood in the flooded areas giving their news updates on television.
Pajaro had always been vulnerable because repairs were never prioritized, in part because officials didn’t think it made financial sense to protect the low-income area, interviews and records show.
After the 1995 deluge, Álvarez recalled that officials said they would address the problem. They never did.
“We are the hardest working people and we help this economy,” he said.
Monterey and Santa Cruz county officials are considering a plan to relieve flood pressure from the Pajaro River that would include cutting Highway 1.
Major utility lines, which run through the levee under Highway 1, and a wastewater treatment facility are at risk of flooding.
Mark Strudley, executive director of Pajaro Regional Flood Management, said that water coming out of the floodplain flows through a gap under Highway 1, which is between a levee and the highway embankment, “so It’s out of the riverbed.”
For this reason, “it is devouring the dam right there. It’s eroding the levee from the floodplain side instead of the river side.”
Strudley said major utilities, including a sewage and water irrigation pipeline, run through the levee. So as water eats away at the levee, the integrity of these public services is threatened.
He said its location makes it difficult to fix: The only way to access this space is through a small, open area that straddles the northbound and southbound lanes of the 1 Freeway.
And because the rails cross a shallow bridge, an excavator cannot be used to repair the erosion. And it wouldn’t do to throw rocks or sand through the gap between the rails, because that could damage utility lines.
“So if the water continues to erode through the levee in such a way that it re-enters the river system…it could overwhelm the river system downstream of Highway 1. And, in particular, the feature that is immediately downstream is the plant wastewater treatment facility for the city of Watsonville, which is on the Santa Cruz County side,” Strudley said.
He said that if the water peaks or seeps through the levee, “we may destroy parts of the plant and we may end up releasing raw sewage into the floodplain into the river and ultimately into Monterey Bay.” .
He said they have three options to deal with the situation.
“One thing you can do is open up the levee downstream from that point, a little bit downstream, but upstream from the wastewater treatment plant to allow the water to come back into the floodplain,” he said.
The second option “is actually opening up Highway 1. Basically going through Highway 1 and the low point that’s south of the river and letting the water run out of the floodplain.”
The last option, he said, is to do nothing.
The new storm hasn’t hit as hard as expected, so far, so it may provide much-needed relief.
He said a decision is likely to be made Tuesday afternoon.