“When can we go home?” Pajaro residents agonize as key question remains unanswered


PAJARO — Behind the barricades and under the watchful eye of armed police, dozens of frustrated Pajaro families gathered on the Main Street bridge with one question in mind: “When can we go home?”

Desperately trying to convince officers to let them through to check on pets, pick up important documents or simply to see if their homes have been flooded, Pajaro residents are growing increasingly frustrated as Monterey County officials continue to warn that a return home is not likely. for another week, even with the floods going down in the last few days.

With no access to homes or jobs and no idea when reconstruction can begin, many of Pajaro’s residents – who were forced to evacuate after a dam failed in the early hours of Saturday morning – are feeling left behind.

Rumors that looters could break into damaged homes in the deserted town swirled around shelters and among the panicked crowds gathered on the bridge this week, raising fears that many will return home and nothing.

Miscommunication between government agencies is also fraying evacuees’ nerves: Governor Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday that $42 million would be available for aid to farm workers through the United Way, but the agency says just over $300,000 is actually available, noting that the governor was likely confusing local agency aid with state COVID-19 relief funds for farmworkers announced in 2020.

“I feel dazed, dazed and confused,” said Laura Garcia, who was standing on the Main Street bridge with her husband and two daughters on Wednesday after being stopped by police. “I just want to make sure my house is okay. Why can’t they let us through? I just don’t get it.

Monterey County Deputy Sheriff Keith Boyd said Thursday that Pajaro families will not be able to return to their homes for another week at least as contaminated silt, mud and standing water from floodwaters continue to threaten the safety of residents. Even allowing people to return briefly would be unsafe due to potential structural damage to buildings, he insisted, as well as posing a logistical challenge.

He said the community will remain under evacuation orders for the foreseeable future, but that department partners are working diligently to assess the damage and bring families back as quickly as possible.

Since the flood, officials in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties have set up hundreds of shelters, adding 80 as of Wednesday night. There are currently 328 people in shelters at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, with a few dozen scattered among a local church, Castroville Recreation Center and The Salvation Army.

“I wish it was today, but I can’t say that,” Boyd said. “There are many issues we need to resolve in the community before we can clear the air and rescind the order. Not today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. The earliest is next week, but it’s hard to say.”

For Garcia and many others, that answer is not good enough. Since being woken up in the middle of the night to evacuate, Garcia has not been able to sleep comfortably, worrying about her young daughters in the crowded shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.

Just three weeks ago, Garcia – a strawberry packer in Driscoll – finally scraped together enough money to buy her nine-year-old daughter her first bed. Like many farm workers, Garcia has lived paycheck to paycheck, a reality she has faced since arriving in this country some 13 years ago. Now the bed is gone.

Garcia’s husband, Gerardo Piñon, managed to walk across the railroad tracks on Sunday to return to his home to record a video of the damage. The video shows knee-deep water flooding all the furniture, clothes and other belongings he has worked so hard for years to give his daughters.

“I’ve been with my husband for 13 years and I’ve never seen him cry,” Garcia said. “He came home crying. He said, ‘It’s all gone. It’s all over. ”

As families continue to wait for answers, Monterey County officials are working to create new shelters and continue to provide immediate aid to those affected, including food aid, printing nearly 2,000 flyers and pamphlets with information about the aid and why it will take so long. time. to return home.

With poor communication and little response from government officials, some families are already taking it upon themselves to find alternative accommodations. Juana Torres, her husband Heraclio Reyes and three of their four children drove to Salinas on the night of the dam failure to find all the hotels full. They spent one night in their car.

“Not even when I came to America did I think I would sleep in my car,” Torres said. Now the family is sleeping in an old tool shed in Soquel.

Torres was evacuated from Pajaro for nine days in January when authorities thought the levee would fail, but it did not. Unable to find a shelter bed at that time, Torres paid over $1,200 for hotel stays. She borrowed money from her sister and is still paying it back, but the family is running low on cash and neither she nor Reyes can go back to work. She’s wondering how they’re going to pay the rent and pay off the debts they’re piling up from this disaster.

Torres and Reyes drove to the Main Street Bridge on Wednesday in a futile attempt to get home.

“We have to go back for my husband to get his tools so he can find work, then start working, wait until payday and only then start rebuilding everything we lost,” Torres said. “We can’t start until they let us through.”

Like Torres, Garcia is exhausted. On the bridge, she looked at her quiet daughters and cried, unable to explain to them what comes next.

“My daughter asks me, ‘Where are we going?’ And I don’t know what to feel except total despair,” she said. “I can’t tell her we’re going home. We do everything for them, and what should I tell her? It makes you feel helpless.”

She said she is starting from scratch again, just like when she first came to this country for a new life.

“It took us a long time to get to where we are after coming from Mexico 13 years ago, and it was really hard to finally get comfortable,” she said. “At the time we didn’t have any daughters and it was hard to start from scratch. I feel like when I came to America from Mexico, starting with nothing and now with the responsibility of two children. How did it all happen so fast? We lost everything in the blink of an eye.”

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