It’s been nearly two weeks since a levee broke on the Pajaro River, inundating the nearby unincorporated community of Pajaro and sending its roughly 3,000 residents into what county officials suggest could be a months-long exile.
Despite promises from Gov. Gavin Newsom that an application for federal aid would be submitted, no such request has been made.
At a news conference last week in Pájaro, Newsom said he called President Biden shortly after the crisis. According to the governor, the president said, “As soon as you have that assessment, let me know.”
“We have every confidence that he will be there for us,” Newsom told the crowd.
However, unless officials can broaden the scope of the disaster, perhaps to include counties like Tulare and Kings, which have experienced widespread flooding, such a request by Newsom is increasingly unlikely, according to a spokesman for the Bureau of Emergency Services. Governor’s Emergency.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency “has quite a complex criteria in terms of what” is a disaster … “and what are the standards,” said Brian Ferguson, director of crisis communications for the office of emergency services.
So far, he said, Pájaro does not qualify.
“To give you a general idea,” he said, “it normally means 1,200 houses must have been badly damaged or destroyed.”
George Nunez, division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said only 903 buildings in Pájaro have been damaged, and of those, only six are so bad that they cannot be entered.
It’s a blow to a community that has long been marginalized and neglected.
On Thursday afternoon, residents were allowed into the town for the first time since the flooding to check their homes and belongings.
Earlier this month, a federal official told The Times that government engineers had known for years that the levee protecting the city could fail. The official admitted that an improvement project was never drawn up, in part, because “it is a low-income area. It’s largely farm workers who live” there.
Residents and business owners are increasingly frustrated by the government’s response.
Anali Cortez, 17, who has been sharing a hotel room with her parents, three brothers and two sisters after they were unable to get into a shelter, said she is frustrated by the lack of assistance her family has received.
She said county officials have said to wait while they work to get FEMA up and running.
“They keep saying, ‘Wait, wait,’ but what are we waiting for?” he told her in a telephone interview.
The teen said her family applied for financial assistance through a nonprofit organization and the county is providing some funds, but so far they have gotten no response.
She said most residents know the county is trying to help, but those efforts don’t seem to be executed well. Take, for example, the portable toilets set up in a nearby park.
“Do I really need to walk to the park to use the bathroom?” she said, adding that the county should have dispersed the bathrooms throughout the community.
Upon learning that Pajaro does not yet meet the criteria for FEMA assistance, the girl said, “I don’t think that’s right.”
“Just because it didn’t reach the level of destruction they want doesn’t mean we can’t get help. Everyone has been affected by the disaster no matter what.”
She and others pointed to the quick response their wealthy neighbors received after the January storms.
Nine days after a storm battered the Santa Cruz coastline, toppling iconic restaurants and bars along the Capitola waterfront and collapsing the cliff below Santa Cruz’s West Cliff Drive, Biden declared the region a major disaster.
“We have tens and tens of millions of dollars in damage here, so I’m not really sure” how the community couldn’t qualify, said Glenn Church, a Monterey County supervisor whose district encompasses Pajaro.
A FEMA major disaster declaration provides direct relief to individuals and businesses that suffered losses as a result of storm and flood damage. To obtain such a declaration, the governor must apply directly to the president.
Typically, such requests are supported by damage estimates – preliminary assessments that describe the damage and indicate the need for federal assistance.
In the case of the January storms, Ferguson said, the damage was so extensive that it was easy to “quickly add up the totals” they needed.
But in the case of Pájaro, because the damage is so localized, it’s taking longer.
“We could be counting for several weeks and we may or may not ultimately make it,” he said, adding that the governor’s office is doing everything it can to be “creative” to secure funding, whether through FEMA or others. federal and state programs.
He said the good thing about FEMA money is that it provides direct financial assistance to individuals and businesses. Most of the other programs consist of loans.
The concern with submitting an application that doesn’t meet FEMA’s disaster thresholds, he said, is that while the federal government deliberates, which could take weeks or months, other avenues of financial support aren’t available.
“Loans from the Small Business Administration aren’t as good as direct federal assistance … but available loans are better than nothing available,” Ferguson said.
Earlier this month, Newsom secured a more limited offer. Presidential Declaration of Emergencywhich authorized federal assistance to support storm response and recovery efforts.
Meanwhile, state and local legislators are pleading with the governor to speed up the assessment and application for major disaster relief.
“We need to get FEMA here as soon as possible,” said Monterey County Board Supervisor Luis Alejo. “Pajaro residents have been asking, ‘Where are the FEMA workers to help us?’ There is a lot of urgency. … That federal assistance must be deployed now.”
On March 20, a group of seven state legislators, including Senator John Laird and Assemblyman Robert Rivas, sent Newsom a letter urging him to “act quickly to address the many immediate unmet needs of displaced residents, including farmworkers.” Pajaro Valley” and “Request Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for the most recent series of storms beginning February 24, 2023.”
For now, evacuees rely heavily on philanthropic funds and donations to provide assistance, said Ray Cancino, executive director of Community Bridges, an Aptos-based organization that helps coordinate relief for displaced Pajaro residents.
Minutes after Monterey County lifted evacuation orders in Pájaro, allowing residents to return to their community and assess the damage to their homes, Sister Rosa Dolores, founder of Casa De La Cultural Center, hopped on his car and started driving towards Pajaro.
“I’m on my way to see how the center is doing,” he said by phone.
Dolores has been baffled by the glacial pace at which assistance has been pouring in for residents of Pájaro and other surrounding farming communities.
She recalled the 1995 flood that led to a FEMA response in which they produced temporary trailers for residents.
“They were there pretty quickly and people stayed in them for a year or so,” he said looking back. “It became a little neighborhood.”
But now, he wonders why that federal response wasn’t given this time. “If FEMA wants to help us, they need to be in Pajaro now,” she said.
Many of the evacuees Dolores works with are farm workers who are now unable to work because fields are flooded and crops are damaged.
Companies like Driscoll’s Berries are providing funds to organizations like Community Bridges.
Ferguson said the fact that Pajaro has a history of marginalization can help with a disaster claim.
“In some ways, these communities are more resilient, because for a long time they have not received the support they need from their governments and they tend to recover faster,” he said. “Because just by their nature they have had to be able to live on their own.”