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'We're Survivors': Scenes From Pajaro After the Water Finally Receded

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A group of people stand behind police caution tape.
Residents of Pajaro, the unincorporated area in Monterey County that flooded after a levee breach on March 10, gather just across the river in Watsonville, on March 19, 2023, waiting for authorities to let them return home. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Updated 11:30 a.m. Thursday

More than a week after the Pajaro River burst through an aging levee, submerging much of the small unincorporated community along its banks, the floodwaters had mostly receded.

But last weekend, the 2,000 Pajaro residents — many of them Latino farmworkers — who heeded the evacuation order in the early hours of March 11, fleeing across the river to seek shelter in Watsonville, were still waiting for permission to return home.

On Sunday, a group of displaced residents gathered across the river from their homes, on the Watsonville side of the Pajaro River Bridge, where sheriff's deputies had established a checkpoint and were continuing to prevent most people from crossing back over.

Monterey County Sheriff's Deputy Antonio Jardines stops a driver trying to cross the Pajaro River Bridge. Police have blocked residents from returning after the unincorporated area flooded on March 11. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

"It's like the border," Leonardo Torres, 53, a former farmworker who has lived in Pajaro for 13 years, said of the scene on the bridge, comparing it the checkpoint between the United States and Mexico. "This community has always been discriminated against for years."

Facing growing pressure from the community, the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services on Thursday morning lifted the evacuation order — a day earlier than anticipated — allowing residents to return to their homes and assess the damage.

"We understand that many residents are eager to return to their homes and begin the process of recovery and clean-up, but we urge caution and emphasize that there are still health risks associated with re-entry," the agency said in a statement.

Potable water remains unavailable, and toilets can't be flushed, as crews continue to scramble to repair the town's damaged wastewater sewer system, it said.

"It is not recommended that residents live in their homes until sewer and water is restored. Those who choose to enter the area do so at their own risk," the agency warned. It noted that cleaning stations, portable toilets, showers, laundry services and information booths has been set up at Pajaro Park and Pajaro Middle School, and that free bus service is available to shuttle residents from evacuation shelters back into town.

A group of people, including parents with children, pick up food outside a gas station.
Blanca Garcia (right) hands out supplies to displaced Pajaro residents under the awning of a gas station just across the river, in Watsonville. Authorities are blocking most people who leave Pajaro from returning after the unincorporated area flooded on March 11. (Kori Suzuki /KQED)

Situated some 3 miles upstream from Pajaro, the levee was built in 1949 and has failed multiple times. It "no longer provides the designed level of protection," according to an Army Corps of Engineers webpage summary from 2021.

A devastating flood in 1995, in which two people drowned, resulted in as much as $95 million in economic damage. And just a few months ago, during the year's first series of atmospheric rivers in January, residents were evacuated for a week amid severe flooding danger.

A group of people stand in front of a store, with a sign that says 'Snack Shop Now Open.' Some hold slices of pizza.
Pajaro resident David Rodriguez smiles as other residents receive slices of pizza from volunteers in Watsonville, just across the river. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Local and federal officials had long known the levee could fail, but continuously postponed repair projects, The Los Angeles Times recently reported. The delays were, in part, because “it’s a low-income area. It’s largely farmworkers that live” there, an unnamed official told a Times reporter.

Torres, 53, was among the minority of residents who stayed put as the floodwaters approached, defying the evacuation order. "We're survivors," he said.

Pajaro residents gather near a bridge in Watsonville, just across the Pajaro River from their homes, awaiting permission from officials to return. Authorities continue to block residents from crossing back over the river. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

But by last Sunday, Torres and other residents who stayed behind were running low on food and had begun collecting rainwater in buckets. They crossed the bridge to pick up pizza, bread and bottled water from volunteers stationed on the Watsonville side, and were then allowed to return to their waterlogged homes as part of an informal arrangement with sheriff's deputies at the checkpoint.

A flooded field.
Some fields remained flooded in Pajaro, more than a week after the Pajaro River levee failed. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

That morning, a group of local businesses from the nearby community of Freedom had set up tents near the bridge and were offering food and other supplies to displaced residents.

"They want answers, and they don’t have answers," said Barbara Padilla with Community Bridges, a social service nonprofit in Watsonville that regularly works with Pajaro’s farmworker and undocumented communities. "They feel lost."

A man stands in back of a waterlogged house surrounded by mud.
José Hernandez stands in the muddy backyard of his home in Pajaro that had, until recently, been underwater. He is among the residents who opted to stay, despite evacuation order after the area flooded on March 11. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Padilla has been helping residents fill out applications for financial assistance and loaning cleaning equipment like vacuum cleaners and pressure washers for them to use when they are permitted to return home. She said her organization also set up showers at the nearby county fairground evacuation site, where many residents have been staying since the flood.

When the evacuation order came on March 11, José Hernandez, a 46-year-old roofer, sent his family across the river to his father-in-law's house. But he stayed behind to take care of their pets – two huskies, three cats, a bird and a guinea pig — which he said he eventually had to evacuate by boat.

A man in a jacket with a baseball cap stands outside his house, motioning with his arm.
José Hernandez outside his home in Pajaro, where he chosen to stay, despite evacuation order. 'These people need help now,' he said. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

On Sunday, Hernandez was still in Pajaro but said he was planning to cross the bridge that evening to see his family.

"Everybody wants to come back to their houses like normal life. But I don't know if it's going to be possible. I don't know when," he said. "We really, really need help. That's the thing. They have to do something now."

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