The Mercury News
VICTIMS OF FLOOD DEMAND ANSWERS
County officials: Still waiting for federal aid for Pajaro evacuees
Nearly two weeks after a levee failure forced hundreds of families in the small Monterey County community of Pajaro to leave their homes in the middle of the night, both county officials and residents are demanding answers for why federal assistance promised by the governor has yet to materialize.
At a heated town hall meeting Tuesday, county authorities told Pajaro residents that emergency evacuation orders could be lifted by the end of the week and that they are “hoping” evacuees will be able to return starting Friday. Still, the meeting quickly devolved into a shouting match as residents excoriated officials over a lack of information, miscommunication and a failure to deliver the financial aid they need to rebuild their lives.
“What else do you want or how else do you want me to
ask you? Do you want me to get on my knees and beg?” evacuee Elba Carrillo said to officials, through tears, as she and about a dozen others surrounded Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo to confront him on aid plans.
“I want you to really promise us now, here and now in front of all of us, that you will help us,” Carrillo demanded. “Where do we have to drag ourselves to and how many times?”
Since torrents of water
poured into Pajaro after a levee failed during an atmospheric river storm nearly two weeks ago, a majority of the town's roughly 2,800 residents have been left homeless. More than 500 people are staying at shelters set up by the county. Hundreds of others spend sleepless nights in their cars, cram their families into small tool sheds or pay for hotel rooms with the little money they have or can borrow.
During a visit to Pajaro last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom
recounted a conversation with President Joe Biden as he suggested there would be an “immediate response” to the state's request for a major disaster declaration that can open up a range of federal assistance money, including individual financial aid.
But a week after Newsom's visit, the state has yet to submit a request for that declaration. And both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Gov
ernor's Office of Emergency Services said the damage to hundreds of homes in Pajaro alone would not qualify the state for FEMA assistance.
“They let us down,” said Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli. “We're still waiting on the presidential emergency declaration that was promised to us over a week ago. Governor, please pick up the phone and call the president and ask him to have empathy for the suffering of people in Pajaro. Ask him to sign the declaration.”
State officials are still conducting preliminary damage assessments across the state to meet the criteria for aid, Cal OES spokesperson Brian Ferguson said, adding that the state must meet a “benchmark” of about 1,200 homes that are destroyed or have incurred major damage.
“It's up to the governor and when they finish the requisite paperwork,” FEMA spokesperson Robert Barker said.
Newsom's office did not respond to a request for comment, instead deferring questions to CAL OES.
When evacuation orders are lifted, residents won't be going back to the same Pajaro they left. There is still no potable water or working sewer system in the town, and about 400
buildings — nearly half of those in the town — were damaged by the flooding, according to a preliminary damage assessment by Cal Fire.
Approaching county officials with tears in their eyes and anger in their voices, many Pajaro evacuees said Tuesday that they've been turned away from shelters and at lines to gather food, clothes, blankets and other immediate necessities.
So far, the only financial assistance available to residents is the $300,000 the state allocated to the Monterey County United Way in COVID-19 farmworker relief funds three years ago. Some of that money can now go to Pajaro evacuees — but only if they are actually farmworkers. And even that money — a single payment of $600 — hasn't been disbursed.
One Pajaro resident, a farmworker, said she was told the $600 debit card won't come for another two or three weeks despite the “immediate needs” of her family.
For those who don't qualify as farmworkers impacted by COVID-19, there is currently no plan for financial help.
“They're only giving help to those who identify that they work in the field, and if you don't work in the field, they're not offering help,” said Jose Hernandez, who spoke at Tuesday's meeting. “It's not right. We've all been hurt the same, not just those who work in the fields.
The help should be equal.”
Despite the mass confusion and outcry, county supervisors and emergency workers took few questions Tuesday and attempted to end the meeting while many residents still waited to speak. Monterey County Supervisor Glenn Church, who represents Pajaro, could be seen leaving through a back door as bewildered residents surrounded public officials to ask for any updates.
Monterey County officials denied that anyone who needs help is being turned away and insisted that any Pajaro resident needing food, clothes or any kind of help can get it at the shelter.
Ana Morales, Gilberto Vasquez and their three teenage children simply felt defeated. Morales said she left the meeting “more confused than when I got here” as no immediate help was given to her.
The family of five is taking turns sleeping inside a cramped shed in a family friend's backyard and on the cold, hard floor of their SUV. Morales said she hasn't slept much since the evacuation. She said she feels “delirious at times ... like nothing is real.”
“It's my first time sleeping in a car,” Morales said. “I know I can't do anything about it now, but the authorities could've done more. They could've given us more time to evacuate. They could've fixed the levee after 28 years.”