Pajaro evacuees left in limbo as Monterey County crews race to close levee – The Mercury News


PAJARO – As dark brown flood waters began to recede from the flooded farm worker community of Pajaro, Monterey County, residents called for help on Tuesday and expressed frustration at the possibility that they and thousands of others evacuees could remain outside their homes for weeks, possibly longer.

More than three days after the dyke at the top of the Pajaro Valley failed, evacuees remained in a state of limbo as emergency crews worked to plug the breach that spilled water over 3 square miles of homes and farmland. Their work came as another atmospheric storm hit California – exacerbating the region’s flood risk and further complicating efforts to end the crisis.

About 21,000 residents remain under evacuation orders or warnings across Monterey County, including 2,000 people forced to leave more than 800 homes in the community of Pajaro, according to Sheriff Tina Nieto. County officials opened two more shelters after temporary housing at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds reached capacity — bringing the total number of shelters for displaced residents to seven.

For some longtime Pajaro residents, like Juan Carlos Gomez, the impact of the disaster is just beginning to be felt. that the Pajaro dike had failed and that flooding was imminent. He and his family fled without many of their important belongings, including their immigration papers.

Now, seeing the pictures of all his belongings—the recliners, the kitchen table, the rugs, the beds—completely ruined left him with a profound sense of loss.

“I feel helpless,” said Gomez, whose family is staying with a friend in Watsonville. “We lost everything we worked so hard to achieve. This is the first time since I arrived in this country in 2002 with nothing that I feel like I have nothing new.”

Monterey County officials on Tuesday announced progress in repairing the dike, citing around-the-clock work that helped shrink the hole from about 365 feet wide to 20 feet by Tuesday afternoon. Dozens of dump trucks filled with rocks of various sizes lined up to enter the dike repair site, working from the north side of the span to stretch a temporary rock barrier about five feet above the floodwaters.

But a firm estimate of when the levee breach could be fixed remained elusive on Tuesday, said Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency.

“There are a lot of wild cards going on right now,” Strudley said. “There is uncertainty with weather and river response and probably some uncertainty with construction. They are working in very dynamic conditions with running water.”

If one or more storms hit in the next week, as expected, the repaired section could function more like a weir than a dike if it isn’t raised to the dike’s original height, Strudley said.

“There may be some spillover,” he added. “It’s supposed to be a plug, but it might not be a perfect plug.”

The lack of clarity left residents anxious, frustrated and tired. For the people who didn’t leave, all that was left was uncertainty.

Raul Garcia, Gomez’s neighbor, said the lack of clean water and food forced him to book a hotel for himself and his family of five over the next five days, spending about $535 he can’t afford. Garcia has been unemployed for months.

The last time he worked, picking strawberries in the Pajaro Valley, was in October, and with the floods hitting most of the fields in the area, he estimates he may not return to work until late April or May. He said he doesn’t know how he will pay to get his car fixed or what’s next for him.

“Right now, we should be in the fields, the fruit should be growing – but we are not the fields,” Garcia said. “It’s going to be tough this year, for everyone. It makes you feel desperate.”

Garcia said he is also frustrated with the rules imposed on evacuees. Since he decided to stay in Pajaro after the levee broke, he said he couldn’t get across the bridge to Watsonville because the police said he couldn’t get back home. Likewise, those who left Pajaro cannot cross the creek to return.

“Some people are telling us it will take a few weeks, some are telling us a month, some are telling us months, but what is the truth?” Garcia said. “We all feel lost and confused. What will happen?”

Sheriff Nieto urged Pajaro residents who chose to remain in their homes to leave for their own safety, noting that floodwaters still cover parts of the city, electricity remains off and the water in Pajaro is not potable. Sheriff’s deputies on Monday arrested someone believed to be looting a laundromat, Nieto said.

“We need people to leave,” said Nieto. “We are not going to deliver (water) in a closed area. There is a risk of staying there, so we closed the area.”

Meanwhile, nonprofit leaders also implored Bay Area residents to help, citing a growing crisis that showed no signs of letting up.

“We don’t know how many cars will start up again, we don’t know how many homes will be red-tagged,” said Susan True, CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. “Until the water subsides, it’s hard to get the actual count.”

They worked amid concerns about donor fatigue, as the breach of the dike came on the heels of more flooding in late December and January, as well as the coronavirus pandemic and bushfires in recent years.

“You can detect that there is fear and a feeling of uncertainty,” said Ricardo Yerena, co-director of the nonprofit Raices Y Carino, which provides food and personal care products to the homeless. “There are a lot of blank stares coming from people. There are many children who come and seem to be afraid.”

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