Residents left in flooded California farming town feel ‘abandoned’ as levees fail

Dora Alvarez stood on the balcony of her two-story building on Tuesday, holding a garden hose next to a gutter and directing water to recycling bins below for her family to use after she boil.

“As long as they don’t turn off the gas, we’ll be fine,” she said.

Alvarez, 54, and his family were among residents who chose not to evacuate Pajaro, the small migrant town that was flooded when a levee on the Pajaro River broke on Friday night, forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes.

“I know some people are criticizing us for not going, but the danger of flooding isn’t there, it’s somewhere else,” Alvarez said, pointing south toward Salinas Road, which was submerged in the flood. ‘water.

Standing nearby, her neighbor Karla Loreto, 35, nodded in agreement.

“We’re also not going to wander around looking for danger,” Loreto said.

The city has in many ways become ground zero for the latest atmospheric river storm to hit California, the 11th of the season so far.

The storm brought even more rain and snow to the beleaguered state and sent thousands of residents rushing against rising waters. As of Tuesday evening, around 336,000 homes were without power and 70 flood watches and warnings were in effect.

Pajaro – a small town of around 3,000 people, many of whom are migrant farm workers – may not recover for a long time.

“Areas that have been flooded and remain flooded are still under an evacuation order, so it won’t be a matter of days,” Monterey County spokesman Nicholas Pasculli said during an interview. a press briefing. “We want people to go home as soon as possible, and we are going to do everything we can to make sure that happens, but there will undoubtedly be cases where people cannot go home. some of their homes.

The city appeared lifeless on Tuesday. Sandbags were installed at the entrances to bars, beauty salons and meat markets. Around the area, the streets had turned into miniature lakes. Water coated the tires of parked cars and gushed out under the manhole covers. Potatoes, lemons and food wrappers lay in the streets where the water had receded.

Sheriff’s cruisers and the National Guard patrolled as television reporters stood near flooded areas for news updates.

Officials said flooding was not the only risk in the area. Major utility lines cross the levee below Highway 1, and a sewage treatment facility is downstream.

“If water continues to erode through the levee such that it re-enters the river system…it could overwhelm the river system downstream of Highway 1,” where the water treatment plant is located. Watsonville wastewater, said Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood. Management agency.

If water overflows or seeps through the levee, Strudley said, “we risk destroying parts of the plant and we could end up dumping untreated sewage into the floodplain, into the river, and then finally in Monterey Bay”.

According to Monterey County Undersheriff Keith Boyd, many Pajaro residents remain under a drinking order because there is no clean water due to flooding. This includes a school, two mobile home parks and approximately 800 homes.

Despite dangerous conditions in Pajaro, many families refused to leave because some residents who had been evacuated in January returned to find their homes had been broken into, Alvarez said.

She stayed this time partly because of her husband’s health. He has liver cancer and has to see his doctor once a week for chemotherapy; his next appointment is Sunday.

“COVID poses a threat to him,” she 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 house, to sleep in our beds and to eat the food that we have in our fridge.

A woman stands on a balcony and looks at two large blue trash cans below

Dora Alvarez, 52, watches over two recycling bins filled with rainwater that her family planned to use after boiling.

(Ruben Vives/Los Angeles Times)

Alvarez said the flooding illustrates how often Pajaro is viewed by outsiders.

“The counties are prepared to let this part of town be flooded,” Alvarez said.

Officials had known for decades that Pajaro was vulnerable, but did not prioritize repairs to the levees, in part because they believed it did not make financial sense to protect the low-income area, such as the show interviews and archives.

After a 1995 flood that killed two people and caused up to $95 million in economic damage, officials said they would fix the problem, Alvarez recalled. They never did.

“We are the hardest working people and we are helping this economy,” she said.

Loreto, her neighbor, agreed.

“We sometimes feel abandoned,” Loreto said. “Since moving here I have always heard about the 1995 floods and this opinion that this part of town is so bad and extremely poor.”

She pointed to Watsonville, across the river in Santa Cruz County, and said that side was “lo mas nice” – the nicest part.

The women said that because their community is between Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, they feel left out and neither county is willing to help.

This is not an uncommon sight in Pajaro.

Florencia Rios, 48, and her husband said they heard about what happened in the 1995 flood.

“It’s been made clear to me that this side of town isn’t worth much in terms of business, so the river is allowed to flood this town,” Rios said, looking at Watsonville. “It feels like they have more resources there.”

“You can definitely see the difference,” said her husband, Enrique Olvera, 47.

The couple worried about what was next – if they would get help, when there was work. They have no money set aside and have used what they have left to pay rent for March.

“We don’t even know where to look for help,” Olvera said. “We just need a little help, some food and water at the very least.”

Adding to the challenge is last week’s levee breach, which continues to put pressure on Pajaro and nearby Watsonville as the Pajaro River swells from the storm.

County and state officials have been working to stabilize the roughly 350-foot breach by laying down rocks and boulders to keep it from getting bigger, but there’s still no official timeline for when. it will be repaired.

“It was a very difficult site; the conditions are very harsh,” Monterey County Water Resources Engineer Shaunna Murray said during the briefing. “We have a small gap that needs to be stabilized. It is a fairly deep area and difficult to access.

Once the levee is stabilized, it will take “a few weeks to raise the levee repair and make it waterproof,” she said.

Officials were considering “manually breaching a section to relieve pressure,” said Zach Friend, a Santa Cruz County supervisor whose district includes parts of Watsonville, which is now threatened by the swelling Pajaro River.

The gap’s location in the middle of Highway 1 on a shallow bridge would make it difficult to plug it, Strudley said, adding that officials had three options.

“One thing you can do is open the dike downstream from that point — a bit downstream, but upstream from the sewage treatment plant — to let the water flow back into the floodplain,” Strudley said.

The second option” is actually to open Highway 1. Basically, cut through Highway 1 and the low point, which is south of the river, and let the water flow out of the plain floodable”.

The last option, he said, is to do nothing, which might be enough because the storm hasn’t hit as hard as expected. A decision was likely to be made on Tuesday evening.

As the threat of floodwaters mounted in Pajaro, Rios and Olvera said they were afraid to leave because they were told they would not be allowed to return. worse position.

They said they were not alone: ​​at least six families with children face the same challenge as them.

Meanwhile, Alvarez glanced at two sheriff’s patrol cars parked in the middle of the road near a bridge. She couldn’t understand why they weren’t letting residents in and out to buy water and food – or, at the very least, couldn’t provide them.

“I’m from Mexico,” she says. “We are used to dealing with disasters there. We know how to survive, we just need a little support.

Alvarez arrived from Mexico two years before the Pajaro flood in 1995.

“It took two months to get home,” she said. “Two months – imagine coming home and having to throw away all the food you bought and having no work?”

These recent storms have felt worse, she said. Strawberries, cabbage and broccoli grown in the area were probably destroyed. Work would disappear again.

Loreto looked down at the parking lot below.

“I work at the gas station behind this building,” she said, pointing her thumb. “I don’t know when they will open this gas station.”

Vives reported from Pajaro, Rust from Menlo Park and Smith from Los Angeles.

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