As California floods, a farmworker town feels forgotten — again

A major flood in Pajaro shows how the U.S. is ill-prepared to address climate disasters in its most at-risk communities. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post, Photo: Paul Kuroda for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
12 min

PAJARO, Calif. — It was happening again. A broken levee, a frantic flight from fast-approaching floodwaters. The prospect of losing everything.

Nearly 28 years to the day since the first time the Huezo family and hundreds of their neighbors were forced from their homes, the rain-soaked Pajaro River was swallowing this small farming community once more.

“I want to cry, but a tree has to be strong while its branches break, and I am the tree,” Antonio Huezo, 72, said as he surveyed the damage. “We have worked more than 40 years to achieve all this, and in 24 hours or less everything we made over a lifetime is gone.”

The Huezo family is among thousands across the state who are reckoning with the toll of a brutal run of winter weather. But longtime residents, local officials and activists say a history of disinvestment and marginalization has left Pajaro and the 3,000 people who live here especially vulnerable.

Last month’s flooding, they say, shows how entire towns can fall through the cracks of local, state and federal systems meant to prevent disasters and assist recoveries. In the weeks since the flood, Pajaro has become an example of the ways in which the country is ill-prepared to address climate-change-fueled devastation in its most at-risk communities.

“The way it’s playing out is exactly as predicted,” said Nancy Faulstich, the founder of Regeneración, a local climate-justice advocacy group. “The people with the fewest resources who are on the margins of society are going to experience these unnatural disasters. What’s clear is we are not prepared as a society for these shocks.”

Authorities knew the levees in Pajaro could fail again, but an improvement project has languished for years. In mid-March, the river burst through a hole in the embankment and plunged nearly every corner of the unincorporated town underwater, the worst disaster since the flooding of 1995.

Residents are furious that more was not done to protect them from a predictable crisis. Officials in Monterey County, home to Pajaro, acknowledge that local leaders have not prioritized the town, but they insist the paradigm is shifting and they’ve called for more state and federal support.

“Historically, these communities have not received the attention of all the levels of government that they deserve,” said Luis Alejo, the chair of Monterey County’s Board of Supervisors. “Only recently are we changing and redirecting resources to communities that never had them.”

The Huezos were finally permitted to return to their pale yellow home at the end of a block off Pajaro’s main road late last week. In the town, houses were caked in noxious mud and debris. Mold was sprouting from ceilings. Contaminated water had streamed into the Huezo home’s first floor, destroying all it touched. Outside, it wrecked their truck, carried trash bins far into the lettuce fields behind their home and toppled a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.

For Maria Huezo, 72, Antonio’s wife, who has lived in Pajaro with her husband for more than four decades, the devastating flood was more evidence of something she has long believed: “We’re always forgotten here.”

‘Inadequate’ protection

The region home to the Pajaro River and the town that bears its name is nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean on the state’s Central Coast. It is home to some of the most productive farmland in the world and has long been an important agricultural hub, growing twice as many strawberries as anywhere else in California.

It is an area with rich history: Colonizers from Spain gave the community its name, which means “bird” in Spanish, in 1769. The artist who painted the cover of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a novel set in the neighboring Salinas Valley that follows the story of tenant farmers whose fields were also flooded, was born in Pajaro.

But that legacy also includes a pattern of neglect by local and state governments, which came to see Pajaro as a politically unimportant home for farmworkers, most of whom are migrants from Mexico, and treated it as “a hinterland for the commercial and political centers” in the wealthier parts of the region, one researcher observed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government’s leading flood control agency, built the levees along the Pajaro River in the late 1940s using surplus material from World War II. But less than 15 years after their completion, a Corps report found the project was “inadequate for protection of the area.” Congress authorized a makeover but did not fund it.

Even after the ruinous flooding of 1995, which soaked thousands of acres of farmland and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, federal, state and local authorities could not agree on project plans and financing.

One major impediment was the Army Corps’ cost-benefit analysis of the project, which calculated that the construction cost would outweigh the value of protecting a low-income rural area — a formula widely criticized for exacerbating racial and economic inequity.

“What’s so infuriating is this community has long known these levees are insufficient for wet years in California,” said Danielle Zoe Rivera, a University of California at Berkeley professor who has been conducting research in Pajaro for two years. “They have for decades and decades been trying to get the attention of the state, the counties, the Army Corps of Engineers, to legitimately address the issue. What stopped any levee improvement project in the past was the cost-benefit analysis never came back in the community’s favor.”

The area is also politically fragmented. The Pajaro River is the border between Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, dividing Pajaro from the city of Watsonville to its north. The two places are closely intertwined. Their populations are overwhelmingly Latino, and residents share churches and grocery stores. But Watsonville, in Santa Cruz County, is incorporated, with its own municipal services and local elected leaders, while Pajaro is run by Monterey County supervisors.

This arrangement has created deep inequalities, especially in Pajaro River flood control maintenance, an area where Santa Cruz has outspent Monterey by millions of dollars.

In recent years, however, the long-promised levee improvement project cleared some major hurdles. The Army Corps changed its cost-benefit calculus to emphasize environmental justice, and the California legislature passed a bill guaranteeing full state funding of the new system.

But then came this winter’s rains. Officials say the levee improvements will still get done — and could even be expedited, a silver lining to the catastrophe — but the timing of the latest failure was agonizing.

“We had all this positive momentum,” said Mark Strudley, executive director of the recently formed Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency. “The real unfortunate part about this, other than this devastation of the community, is the community losing hope in the process and being reminded of the vulnerability they’ve always carried.”

County officials have sought to reassure residents that this time will be different, but they are confronting deeply held frustration and skepticism after decades of broken promises.

“It’s a new team at the county since 1995,” said Nicholas Pasculli, a Monterey County spokesman. “We’re committed, there’s no question about it. We want Pajaro to come back and we want it to be stronger and better, and people aren’t going to rest until that happens.”

‘A humanitarian crisis’

Andres Gonzalez Vaca awoke after midnight on March 11 in his apartment at the back of a used-car lot. The town was being evacuated, and water was beginning to pool on the low-lying pavement.

His family of five had no time to pack. Vaca picked up his 7-year-old daughter and they piled into his truck, without shoes or a change of clothes. Vaca, 45, works in nearby strawberry fields and said he hasn’t received any support from the government, aside from a voucher that allowed his family to stay in a hotel for a couple days.

He returned home to a terrible scene: Thick mud had spread over his driveway and inside his house, caking his daughter’s favorite teddy bear and the framed photo of him and his wife on their wedding day.

“We lost everything in sight,” he said. “We lost the beds of the girls, all their clothes, mattresses, food that we had stored in the garage, our furniture, the refrigerator, the washing machine. We lost it all.”

The hundreds of acres of flooded farmland will have to be fallowed for up to two months, according to federal rules, because the water may be tainted by contaminants or sewage. For laborers like Vaca, this could mean months without work.

“Now the people who were living paycheck to paycheck are in several thousand dollars of debt and will incur several thousands more just to try to rebuild, just to clean up period,” said Tony Nuñez. He is with Community Bridges, a nonprofit assisting with disaster recovery. “There’s no way to describe it other than a humanitarian crisis.”

State audits and independent researchers have found that California is unprepared to protect its most vulnerable residents, especially undocumented Latino and Indigenous immigrants, who are ineligible for federal disaster relief funds and unemployment insurance benefits. This gap has a particularly profound impact in Pajaro, as Monterey County is home to one of the largest shares of undocumented immigrants in the state. More than 1 in 10 identify as Indigenous, according to a recent report, which acknowledges the actual share is probably much higher. These residents face additional obstacles, and they often find resources are unavailable in Mexican Indigenous languages such as Mixtec and Triqui.

Local nonprofits and mutual aid groups are trying frantically to fill the breach in services, collecting donations, delivering essential supplies and giving out free meals. One group, Campesina Womb Justice, has raised more than $150,000 for direct aid for farmworkers.

“Our community has been suffering the whole winter,” said María Ascención Ramos Bracamontes, the group’s founder. “Their need is just getting worse and worse.”

Calls for more state and federal assistance have increased in recent days, as residents returned to wrecked homes and county officials assessed the extensive damage. On Tuesday, some 18 days after the levee failure, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) requested a major disaster declaration from the White House, which would unlock a suite of federal aid programs.

Residents and local leaders complained about the delay, but state officials said they needed time to prove the disaster met the standards for federal relief. Because the damage in Pajaro alone did not meet the threshold, the state expanded the request to include nine storm-battered counties. A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was ready to respond if the declaration was approved.

“We know government moves slowly sometimes, but this community today feels like, if this were an affluent community, FEMA would be on the ground already, they’d be here providing their services,” said Alejo, the Monterey County supervisor, who grew up a block from the river in Watsonville. “There’s a sense of injustice when they’ve been waiting.”

No more rivers

Last week, Alejo delivered a carload of heavy-duty brooms, thick gloves and cleaning supplies to a hard-hit mobile home park, where residents with little money to spare were now facing the prospect of starting from scratch.

“Here, one feels like we are the least important,” said Daniel Aguilar, as he shoveled mud from his teal mobile home. He fears the muck is hazardous — contaminated with waste and chemicals from surrounding farmland — and he’s afraid for his 16-year-old, who developed respiratory problems after a previous storm brought mold into the house.

Aguilar doesn’t know when he’ll be able to come back for good. Across Pajaro, hundreds of homes were damaged and thousands were displaced. It could be at least another week until the town has safe drinking water. Business owners are wondering when, or if, they’ll be able to reopen.

Francisco Moran, a used-car dealer, had nearly three-dozen vehicles in his lot when the floodwaters came. Now, he said, they’re all probably totaled, a loss of some $300,000. His family is praying that their insurance covers part of it — something that didn’t happen after the 1995 flood.

“It’s so taxing, it’s so demoralizing,” said his son, Francisco Moran Jr., who was helping his father with the laborious work of cleaning up. Moran said he still owes about $150,000 to financing companies that helped him buy the cars at auction.

“I don’t know what hurts more,” Francisco Moran Jr. said, “your back after cleaning, or your heart after you realize you don’t have cars to sell, you owe the money and they want their money.”

A half-mile away, the Huezos were also tallying their losses. In 1995, flooding caused about $35,000-worth of damage at their home. But the family stayed and rebuilt the house they had worked so hard to buy. This time could be different. After the property is fixed, Antonio Huezo and his wife will try to leave Pajaro. They want to be far away from the next flood.

“I’d like to sell my house and go somewhere else,” he said. “I don’t want any more rivers.”

Morelia Portillo Rivas and Paul C. Kelly Campos contributed to this report.