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.
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.