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6 Months After Devastating Floods, Pajaro Struggles to Rebuild Before Winter

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flood waters fill a street and cover up the bottom half a large military-like car driving through
A military vehicle drives through floodwaters on March 14, 2023 in Pajaro, Monterey County. The town was flooded after a levee was breached along the Pajaro River. 6 months later, Pajaro residents are still struggling to rebuild (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This story was adapted from two separate articles originally published by KAZU. 

This week marks six months since powerful storms overwhelmed the aging levee system and flooded the small farming community of Pajaro, just outside Watsonville, in Monterey County — forcing thousands to evacuate their homes.

Many of them still haven’t been able to return to their flood-damaged houses — and repairs both to the town and to the levees may not come in time for this winter’s rainy season.

“The house is not the same,” said Tomas Garcia. His family has owned their home in Pajaro since 1985. Now, it sits mostly empty of furniture. Its bare walls are in need of paint, and parts of the roof have been replaced with corrugated plastic. He and his family are staying with relatives just outside of town while they continue work on the repairs.

“We wish we could have finished this two or three months ago,” he said. “But everything has to do with funds.”

 

They recently replaced their floors, but now the work is stalled as Garcia waits on appeals to FEMA and his insurance company.

“I don’t feel safe yet until we finish all this,” he said. “We still need to do a lot of things.”

Like Garcia, much of Pajaro is struggling to return to normal. Main Street is busy again with traffic, businesses are open. But the middle school remains closed, as does the library. Cars covered in grime sit on the side of the road — abandoned since the flooding on March 10. Residents say the empty cars now serve as lingering reminders of the lives that are still upended.

a pile of broken muddy furniture outside a house
Piles of mud-coated furniture and other belongings sit outside a home in Pajaro, Monterey County, on March 24 — days after residents were first allowed to return to their homes. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Lost jobs and lost homes

For Michele Keith, the disaster has felt relentless.

“Nobody understands what we’re going through,” she said. Keith was living in her parents’ home when they were evacuated.

“My mom and dad lost everything on the lower half of the house,” she said. “They were there 25 years.”

For months, she stayed alongside dozens of other displaced Pajaro residents at a motel in Watsonville, paid for by Monterey County. But the program ended on Aug. 23.

“How am I supposed to work and be stressed out about a place to stay?” she said. “It’s just been so upsetting.”

A spokesperson for the county said the hotel program helped more than 200 people transition into permanent housing. But 60 residents, including Keith, were still living there when the program ended. They were offered another hotel option in Marina, about 25 minutes drive away, but nearly half opted not to make the move because of the distance.

Pajaro Rebuilds

Monica Chavez-Gonzalez, a case manager at local nonprofit Community Bridges, said many people can’t afford a new rental.

“It takes about $10,000 just to get into a place,” she said, when considering first and last month’s rent plus security deposit.

Community Bridges has helped residents navigate FEMA appeals, file insurance claims, and locate housing options. But, in addition to the high cost of living in the area, many residents also lost their jobs after the floods. The agricultural fields around Pajaro were damaged, crops ruined, and many out of commission for months.

A survey by the Monterey County Agricultural Commission found that 5% of the county’s agricultural lands were destroyed by the storms — most of them in the Pajaro Valley. In total, floods and rain caused $600 million in damages this year. Strawberries, a major Pajaro Valley crop, were hit hardest of all.

Long-term levee reconstruction still years away


Federal and state support has bolstered recent recovery efforts. After President Biden declared a federal disaster in April, FEMA provided over $5.5 million in aid. And the state made $95 million available to help support undocumented residents, who cannot access other forms of support, like unemployment insurance or federal assistance.

Gov. Gavin Newsom also signed a budget plan in June that carved out $20 million specifically to support Pajaro’s recovery.

Vicente Lara, who works for Monterey County, says a task force is working with the community now to decide how to best spend that money. He expects the task force to make recommendations to county supervisors within six to 12 months.

“Recognizing that we’re not all at the same place,” he said. “We really have to support, especially, those residents who are still struggling in any way we can.”

Meanwhile, crews from the Army Corps of Engineers are racing to complete work to repair the levee here and at two other breaks downstream in time for the rainy season. Mark Strudley, head of Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, says they’ll get it done.

“The Corps has made that commitment to us and to the community,” he said. But those repairs will only bring the levee back to its condition before the devastating floods in March. Major upgrades are still years away.

March wasn’t the first time Pajaro has flooded. The levee has failed four other times since it was built in the 1940s and the system was designated by Congress as inadequate in 1966, but funding to replace the levee has repeatedly taken a backseat — often to flood protection projects in more affluent areas. Last year, the project finally won $149 million in funding under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, along with a $140 million commitment from the state — enough to move forward on the $400 million reconstruction. But officials said it still would take another 10 years to complete.

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“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We still have an old, aging levee system that needs to be rebuilt,” said Strudley. “I can’t, with a clear conscience, tell the community not to be worried.”

Strudley says the project has to go through acquiring easements or property in order to expand and rebuild the levees. Utilities have to be moved and permits acquired. Federal budget rules also prevent the Army Corps from using repair funds to replace the levee. “There’s no way to advance that at a quicker pace than we’re doing now,” he said.

a man wearing a baseball hat stands in a house with the outside covered in a tarp
Tomas Garcia replaced his damaged roof with corrugated plastic. He is working with insurance and FEMA to get funds to continue repairs ahead of winter. (Jerimiah Oetting/KAZU News)

A bill passed last week by the state Legislature would expedite permitting and potentially speed up the project by five years. It was written by California Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, whose district includes Pajaro. And U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who also represents Pajaro, is seeking $200 million in federal funding to streamline the Army Corps contracting. But that’s bottled up in the congressional budget battle.

For now, that leaves many residents feeling left behind and worried about the approaching winter. It’s a concern Strudley says he understands.

“If I were a community member, I would be frustrated just like they are. They’ve been living with these old levees for decades,” he said. “The sad truth is that any project of this scale is going to take many years to build.”

“We’re really concerned about that,” Tomas Garcia said, as he’s racing to complete his own repairs. “That’s why we try to finish this, to make the house a little bit more secure.”

The family has been through all this before, when the Pajaro levee breached in 1995. Back then, Garcia’s father repaired the home himself, without help from the government.

Nearly 30 years later, Garcia’s father sits in his empty living room, breathing with the help of an oxygen tank. Garcia believes the stress of the floods has worsened his health.

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