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Volunteers mobilize in flooded Pajaro, where many lack food, clothing and work

Jessica Sanchez felt terrible about catastrophic flooding that displaced hundreds of people in this Monterey County farming town.

He felt worse when he heard that families were sleeping in their cars because some of the shelters had reached capacity and couldn’t afford hotels.

“I have two daughters and I can’t imagine having to sleep in a car when it’s cold and rainy outside,” said Sánchez, 34. “There is also the fear of a tree falling on them.”

So on Tuesday night, she and her friend Sara Perez, 36, joined a group of volunteers to feed those affected by the flooding that occurred when the Pajaro River breached a levee Friday night.

The two women handed out foam containers of chicken soup, pan dulce and cups of atole, a hot Mexican drink, near the Pajaro River Bridge in Watsonville, across the water from Pajaro, California.

Sánchez said it was only the second day they had gathered to feed families after at least 70 people, including children, showed up Monday.

“We ran out of food and I felt really bad because people kept showing up with their children,” she said.

Displaced Pajaro resident Heriberto Garcia, 66, said he has no money for next month’s rent.

(Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

More than 70 people turned out again on Tuesday night. Some drove, others got out of their cars and headed for the food lines, and some walked across the bridge from their homes in Pajaro with their children.

The families were mostly people from two-story apartment buildings that had refused to evacuate. The town has electricity and gas but no drinking water. Residents collected rainwater that they could use to flush toilets.

On the bridge, volunteers handed out tacos and hot chocolate over police tape that prevented people from trying to re-enter Pajaro. A security guard helped pass boxes of water to the families.

The arched bridge over the Pajaro River connects the towns of Watsonville and Pajaro, two communities that vary in population size and economic power.

Watsonville, located in Santa Cruz County, has a population of nearly 53,000 and a diverse economy that includes agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Pajaro is full of mom-and-pop stores and has about 3,000 residents, most of whom are farm workers.

Despite being in different counties, they share the same zip code. For people like Pérez, they are closely intertwined through farm work.

“Although they live on the other side of the river, they are our compatriots, our friends and co-workers,” he said. “That’s the other sad thing about all this is that some of us work picking strawberries there and now, there is no work for anyone.”

Sanchez said she’s worried about paying her $1,600 rent and bills that are due next month. Perez said he pays $1,200 for a studio apartment and he doesn’t know how he’ll pay the rent either.

The women said the flooding has affected farm workers on both sides of the river, many of whom expected to start work this week.

People give a man a foam container with soup.

José Aguirre, 45, stands in a food line with Pérez near the bridge over the Pájaro River.

(Ruben Vives / Los Angeles Times)

Sanchez and Perez said they were disappointed that Santa Cruz and Monterey counties haven’t done more to help families. Some of the flooded residents speak indigenous languages ​​and cannot communicate well in Spanish.

“I met a woman at a shelter who wanted a blanket for her grandson, but she didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish very well,” Sanchez said. “She had a friend who was able to help translate for her.”

Officials have not distributed clothes for people who had to leave in the middle of the night without having time to grab things, the women said.

“Some people have been wearing the same clothes for days; they don’t have money and they can’t afford to go to hotels,” Sánchez said.

She said the volunteers have used their own money to help some of the people displaced by the floods. One volunteer spent about $200 just on food; another has used her money to distribute toiletries and socks.

Juan Ruiz, 42, another volunteer, said it was important to lend a hand.

“Sometimes you feel powerless because you want to do more, but we can only help where we can,” she said.

Sipping his chicken soup, displaced resident Heriberto Garcia, 66, said he was grateful that people were distributing food. He couldn’t understand why the county didn’t send workers to residents instead of having people come to them.

After Pajaro flooded in 1995, killing two people and causing up to $95 million in economic damage, Garcia said he was hired to help remove water from flooded fields.

He said he expects something similar to happen soon, because he doesn’t have money for his $2,200 rent next month.

Nearby, José Aguirre, 45, ate a plate of French fries.

“I’m so thankful for everyone here for bringing food while we wait to go back to our homes,” he said. “It helps us save a little.”

Aguirre, a farm worker, said he couldn’t find space at a shelter and had to rent a hotel room. Paying $103 a day for a room he and his wife share with his 15-year-old daughter, he has enough money to stay three days, he said. Though he’s not sure what he’ll do next.

“We don’t have work,” he said. “We all need help, some more than others.”

She took a potato chip from her plate and watched as people continued to pour onto the bridge looking for a hot meal and respite from the floods.