Los Angeles Times

The Pajaro flood — not just a ‘natural’ disaster

Undocument­ed migrants in California — a vulnerable group to begin with — are invisible when it comes to disaster aid.

- By Michael Méndez and Manuel Pastor

In the last few years, California has experience­d extreme wildfires, heat waves and the ever-present COVID-19 pandemic. What has become abundantly clear, particular­ly from the ravages of the pandemic on low-income communitie­s of color, is that disaster risk is not an equal-opportunit­y affair.

The latest evidence of this came this past weekend as the Pajaro River levee failed and flooded a small town populated mainly by migrant workers and their families. In an eerie coincidenc­e, the levee failure occurred on March 12, 95 years to the day the St. Francis Dam catastroph­ically failed because of a defective foundation and other design flaws.

The dam collapse triggered a massive flood in Los Angeles and Ventura counties that claimed the lives of nearly 500 people, many of them undocument­ed migrant farmworker­s. It represents the secondgrea­test loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, and is still considered one of the worst civil engineerin­g disasters in U.S. history.

Just as with the St. Francis Dam, the failure of the Pajaro levee was not totally a “natural” disaster. For decades, government officials have known that the levee was vulnerable yet never prioritize­d repairs largely because their cost-benefit analysis didn’t value the losses of a low-income town. As Stu Townsley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told The Times over the weekend: “You get basically Bay Area constructi­on costs but the value of property isn’t all that high.” A reassessme­nt, taking equity into account, has been made, but obviously too late to prevent catastroph­e.

The task now is not just to hold officials accountabl­e for the poor decisions in planning that allowed for the levee breach but to ensure that relief and recovery is delivered equitably.

The relief effort during the aftermath of the St. Francis Dam failure provides an instructiv­e lesson in getting it wrong. The Red Cross, for example, largely refused to provide treatment to Mexican flood victims; local government officials instead enlisted the assistance of La Cruz Azul de San Fernando, a local charity that provided Latino victims mutual aid in racially segregated shelters and offered interprete­r-coordinate­d services. The city of Los Angeles, the operator of the St. Francis Dam, was later accused of providing Latino farmworker­s with lower payouts to cover property loss and for funeral expenses.

This is not just some long-ago history. In our research on wildfires in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties from 2017 and 2020, we found that undocument­ed migrants were rendered invisible by cultural norms regarding who is deemed a worthy disaster victim. In interviews with victims and analysis of government data, a pattern appeared: Resources were directed toward wealthier individual­s, leaving local immigrant rights groups to provide essential services such as language access to emergency informatio­n in Spanish and Indigenous dialects, labor protection­s for farmworker­s threatened by heavy smoke, and establishi­ng a disaster-relief fund for those ineligible for federal aid.

Given their marginaliz­ed social status, undocument­ed migrants are particular­ly vulnerable to disasters and require special considerat­ion in disaster planning and response. They are adversely affected by racial discrimina­tion, economic exploitati­on and hardship, fear of deportatio­n and communicat­ion difficulti­es. According to a 2019 state auditor’s report, emergency officials routinely overlook the state’s most vulnerable population­s as they make preparatio­ns for foreseeabl­e wildfires, floods and other disasters.

Stronger protection­s are needed. For example, improved language access for emergency informatio­n; inclusive disaster and climate adaptation planning programs; disaster-planning funding for community-based migrant organizati­ons; better occupation­al health and safety provisions; a permanent statewide disaster relief fund for undocument­ed immigrants to cover unemployme­nt and medical costs, housing and property replacemen­t, and hazard pay for those who work under dangerous conditions during a disaster.

Wildfires, heat waves, floods and pandemics do not discrimina­te. Nor are these disasters unanticipa­ted, isolated phenomena. Disaster risk and disaster interventi­ons are ultimately political in nature. As California experience­s a rapid increase in the number and severity of challenges associated with our changing climate, we must embrace and engage all California­ns, including those who may lack legal status, in preparing for a sustainabl­e future. Addressing the crisis in Pajaro with an equitable and inclusive approach offers us the opportunit­y to get it right for current residents and for future generation­s.

Michael Méndez is an Andrew Carnegie fellow and assistant professor of environmen­tal planning and policy at UC Irvine. Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and director of the Equity Research Institute at USC.

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