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'We Have Nothing': Pajaro Farmworkers Face the Prospect of No Income at Start of Harvesting Season

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A government emergency vehicle sits in flooded agricultural fields with clouds above.
A government emergency vehicle sits in flooded agricultural fields near Pajaro on March 15, 2023. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

As another atmospheric river storm approaches California, thousands of farmworkers could be left with no income for months after a disastrous flood submerged an “alarming” acreage of agricultural land in California's Central Coast, according to Monterey County officials.

The community of Pajaro, where many farmworkers live, became the emergency’s ground zero after a nearby river levee broke last week and residents were forced to evacuate their homes. Emergency crews have since patched up the Pajaro River levee breach, allowing floodwaters to recede from streets, homes and businesses. But all 3,000 residents continue to be displaced and are under evacuation orders.

“We have nothing. No money. No home,” said Juana Juarez, a longtime farmworker and single mother of three, in Spanish, as tears streamed down her face. “I feel like I’ve reached rock bottom.”

Juarez, 41, worried about how to pay for rent and food for her kids. She planned to start working this month, the usual start to harvesting season for strawberries — the county’s top crop. But now an overwhelming economic and housing uncertainty keeps her up at night.

Two Latina women packing clothes in a park.
Farmworker Juana Juarez (left) packs donated clothes for her family in Watsonville, on March 15, 2023. Juarez, a single mother of three, said she worries about the prospect of no work due to flooding damage. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The devastation in the mostly lower-income Latino community was clear earlier this week. Trucks sat partly inundated in parking lots, while tires, metal pots and other debris littered the deserted roads. A blue beauty salon on Main Street was missing part of its front wall.

Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez returned to her nonprofit, Casa de la Cultura Center, to find that water had left a mark on the brick walls more than 2 feet up from the ground. She carefully opened the building’s front door to find a thick, shiny layer of mud covering the ground floor.

“I’m OK. I’m OK,” she slowly assured herself. And then, “That’s going to require a lot of help to clean out the mud,” she said, as she began considering the impacts. The piano and some electronics would be damaged, she said. Mold might be growing in the walls.

Just outside the town, expansive farmlands looked like shimmering lakes. County officials have started the long process of assessing losses to the local agricultural industry, with a production gross value of $4.1 billion in 2021.

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Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo said the current flood damage will be more extensive than the havoc wreaked during a series of storms last January, when roughly 15,000 acres of farmland were affected, at an estimated cost of $336 million.

“Some of the damages that we are seeing are quite alarming,” particularly for strawberry and raspberry fields that had already been planted, Hidalgo told reporters earlier this week. “From experience in previous flooding, we're looking at anywhere from 30% to 50% yield losses” for those crops.

Because of food safety requirements, submerged farmlands will likely stay fallow for at least 60 days, he said. Regrowing harvests could take even longer.

For the region’s agricultural workforce, the economic impact could be devastating, particularly for Pajaro residents who are also facing additional losses due to flooded homes, said Luis Alejo, who chairs the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.

“They have so little but have lost so much,” said Alejo. “We need to get resources for those who don't have any other means to pay the rent, put food on the table, provide for their families.”

About half of the farmworkers in California are undocumented, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That means they are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits, but households with U.S. citizens or legal residents may apply (PDF) for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.

After touring the disaster area earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters that he recognized the vulnerability of Pajaro and other disaster-stricken communities in the region. During his tenure, Newsom has expanded the public health insurance program Medi-Cal to cover hundreds of thousands of undocumented Californians. But the governor also vetoed a bill last year that would have set up temporary unemployment benefits for undocumented workers.

“There's not a state in America, not one state, that does more for farmworkers than the state of California. And we don't do enough,” said Newsom, standing by flooded farmlands outside Pajaro.

The governor touted a $42 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the nonprofit United Way to provide financial assistance for farmworkers hit with flood losses, regardless of immigration status. People could readily start applying for the aid, he added.

Shortly after, United Ways of California representatives clarified that only $300,000 of those funds — which were actually awarded months ago to the organization for COVID relief — will be distributed in Monterey County, including to storm victims. Applications for the $600 one-time cash cards are not open yet, said Katy Castagna, president of United Way Monterey County.

An older Latina woman with white hair stands outside a building.
Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez surveys the damage at her nonprofit, Casa de la Cultura, in Pajaro on March 15, 2023. The floodwaters left a mark on the walls more than 2 feet from the ground. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

For farmworker Juana Juarez, that cash amount won’t be nearly enough to cover the cost of replacing belongings she lost in the flooding, which she believes include her car, furniture, electronics and clothes. She didn’t know the total amount of her losses, as most Pajaro residents have not been allowed into town yet to survey their homes.

“It’s just too little … the governor should try to help us with more money,” said Juarez, who has been staying with her children at a relatives’ crowded home in the adjacent town of Watsonville.

A spokesperson for Newsom’s office said the administration is pursuing “additional support” for storm-affected residents who are ineligible for FEMA assistance due to immigration status.

An additional $300,000 in flood relief has been raised by local foundations and nonprofits for affected residents in the Pajaro Valley, said MaríaElena De La Garza, who directs the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, one of the organizations tasked with distributing those funds.

“This is a critical situation,” De La Garza said. “We are working in collaboration to get out economic relief to families not only at the shelters, but anybody who's been displaced.”

Before residents can return to their homes, Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto said several agencies must first check the safety of buildings, running water and other infrastructure — a process that could take weeks. Cal Fire damage assessment teams have already started working in Pajaro and other affected areas, according to a county spokesperson.

A white semi facing the camera drives along a partially flooded road with completely submerged fields to both sides, alongside electric lines. In the background is a ranch-style house and thick tree cover.
A truck drives on a flooded road between agricultural fields near Pajaro on March 15, 2023. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Farmworkers from Watsonville whose homes were not flooded also are responding to the crisis. A group of volunteers raised donations through social media and dropped off bags of clothes and food to displaced residents near one of the blocked street entrances to Pajaro this week.

Yessica Ortiz, a strawberry picker who fears she won’t have work either, said she paid out of her own pocket for chicken and rice, pizza boxes and cookies that she offered to families with young children on the street.

“We have to try to help people in whatever way we can,” Ortiz said.

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