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Friday, December 8, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘I don’t see how things are going to go back to normal’: California’s Salinas Valley grapples with aftermath of devastating flood

A major flood in March left an unincorporated community in Salinas Valley reeling. With many residents still waiting for help, grassroots organizers are picking up the slack.

SALINAS VALLEY, Calif. (CN) — In this lush valley nestled behind California’s Central Coast mountain range lies an agricultural heartland where the state’s famed strawberry and leafy lettuce crops abound. 

Yet while the Salinas Valley is fertile, it is also increasingly vulnerable to sudden seasonal swings between harsh droughts and devastating floods. Both took their toll in 2023, when a flurry of unprecedented winter storms slammed much of the state in March. 

One of the hardest-hit areas was the unincorporated community of Pajaro. More than 1,000 residents here were forced to evacuate when flooding from an “atmospheric river” of rain caused the Pajaro River to breach a levee. 

The breach caused widespread destruction from heavy rains, toppled trees, power outages and flooding. In total, around 8,500 residents of Monterey County were put under evacuation orders and warnings — many of them Latino farmworkers.

Even months after these disastrous floods, county officials and advocates say it will take a long time to truly recover from the catastrophe. Storm damage for both Santa Cruz and Monterey counties totaled more than $650 million, according to a report from local community benefit organization Community Bridges.

Meanwhile, residents and local businesses are still waiting for aid. Crops, an economic lifeblood for the agricultural region, are also running behind schedule, further disrupting the community’s economic recovery.

Adding to the challenges, many residents here live on the fringes as farmworkers, wary of seeking government help or unable to get it due to immigration status or language barriers. 

One local resident and mother of eight, who spoke to Courthouse News on the condition of anonymity due to her family’s immigration status, said she and her husband were among many seasonal workers who tried to apply for FEMA aid after their home was flooded but never got a response.

Without support from the feds, it was instead outreach organizations like Mujeres en Acción which helped the family pay for around five months spent in motel rooms. But while the family has since moved back into their rented home, the mother said she and her husband are nervous and stressed about the future. 

“I’m worried because I don’t know if the storm is going to hit again next year,” she said. “My family has to stay in Pajaro because it’s hard to find housing for a big family.”

If another major storm rolls through this season, she said her landlord may require the family to move even if the home does not flood. “I’m hoping that it won’t happen again.”

Stories like these are common among workers and landowners in Salinas Valley who are still reeling from the destruction of the storm in March.

In the absence of a stronger response from the federal government, organizations on the ground are picking up the slack.

Downtown Salinas, Calif., as seen in September 2023. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

To reach people in need who may be hesitant to contact government agencies, United Way in Salinas relies heavily on what it calls “trusted messengers” — people within a community who are embedded with and advocate for vulnerable residents.

The outreach agency Mujeres en Acción, a United Way partner, likewise helps keep track of people and connect them with aid. Such outreach is particularly important in Salinas Valley, where seasonal migrant workers may speak Mixtec and other languages besides Spanish — and where federal aid has so far proved lacking. 

Anayeli Rodriguez, the group’s program manager, is trilingual and was asked to help evacuate Pajaro residents during the floods. She worked with people sheltering at the county’s fairgrounds, helping them apply for United Way’s cash assistance program and other government aid.


Many locals were confused about what was available to them. Those who did apply for aid may still be waiting for FEMA’s response, she said. 

Others were too afraid to apply at all. “They found out FEMA was asking for a Social Security number,” Rodriguez said. She added that some residents mistakenly believed they needed to be a citizen to get aid when that is not always the case.

Many people lost money due to not having work last spring and could be entering the winter with less in savings or couch surfing due to high housing costs, Rodriguez said. Some residents are cramming together just to keep a roof over their heads. 

“A lot of them had to fit in with other families because they were not able to pay for a deposit or an initial payment,” she said. “The prices of everything went up, but their hourly wage is not going up.”

As the extent of damage from the storm has become clearer, it’s also become clear just how much seasonal workers and landowners in the region are hurting.

“Nothing was spared, I hate to say,” said Juan Hidalgo, agriculture commissioner for Monterey County. 

The storm left a particularly big impact on the region’s agricultural economy. Although Monterey County’s annual crop report, released July 25, said the 2022 industry output was good, the top crop of strawberries began six weeks behind schedule at a $160 million loss. 

In an interview, Hidalgo said he was unsure what the long-term impacts on the next season will be. Many growers have applied for federal aid, with the local services agency receiving assistance applications from 300 operations in April alone. 

Add to that the damage to farms and disrupted growing seasons, which have put further strain on the pocketbooks of growers.

“There were some fields that have sat fallow for some time because the ground was so wet,” Hidalgo said. “Some growers lost their entire farm. Others saw serious impacts to their ability to produce for the year.”

Officials are slowly repairing public infrastructure like roads, the sewer system and parks — but all that takes time. 

Sprinklers water fields of lettuce near Pajaro, Calif. In the foreground, growers park their cars before getting to work. (Natalie Hanson /Courthouse News)

The Army Corps of Engineers temporarily repaired the breached portion of Pajaro’s levee, California Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth said at a state briefing in October. Regardless, nearly 24 miles of the levee are still susceptible to breaches during high water conditions. 

Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, said that some repair work could be left for the coming year. Among those fixes is erosion on the Santa Cruz side of the levee, which still needs repair, he said.

As head of the local flood agency, Strudley is helping to coordinate a nearly $600 million levee reconstruction improvement project, slated to begin next summer. The upgrades could make Salinas Valley less vulnerable to future floods, but that too will take time. 

As levee upgrades continue, many locals say they need help now. Nicholas Pasculli, a spokesperson for Monterey County, said the state promised $20 million for recovery efforts in Pajaro but that it could be years before either that money or federal aid arrives. 

Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, along with nearby counties like San Luis Obispo, must partner with nongovernmental organizations to help people still recovering from the flood, Pasculli said. 

“We are all somewhat rural counties, so I think there’s this common bond to stick together and lend a helping hand,” he said. “There’s interdependence between the counties, and because of that there’s cooperation.”

Josh Madfis, vice president of community investments for United Way’s branch in Salinas, praised Santa Cruz County for offering people aid without strenuous eligibility requirements that residents living in the area might not be able to meet.  

Still, Madfis said that when disasters like the March flood happen, short-term aid tends to peter out before the long-term impacts are felt. That puts particular strain on low-income residents and migrants.

“The people who were affected don’t have the same capacity to access services,” Madfis said. They “maybe feel a little bit scared to access those services, for fear of deportation.”

Even when aid has come, though, it hasn’t always been enough. While residents and businesses requested about $3.5 million in state and federal aid, there is still a $1 million shortfall, Madfis said. Many who do not qualify for federal assistance rely on food, housing and financial assistance from local emergency sources like the Monterey County Storm Relief Fund and local nonprofits. 

The result, he said, has been “massive displacement and loss of income and housing.”

“Some families just don’t have any other [housing] option,” he said. “We have seen many clients relocate.”

Hidalgo, the agricultural commissioner, is hopeful the county can continue working closely to help farmworkers. But given the reality of climate change, officials must be better prepared for future disasters, he said. 

He cited recent wildfires, which even before the floods in March had disrupted life in Salinas Valley. “All of that has a major impact,” he said. “I don’t see how things are going to go back to normal.”

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Categories / Economy, Environment, Government, Regional

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