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

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

Desperately trying to convince police officers to let them through to check on pets, grab important documents or simply to see if their homes were flooded, Pajaro residents are growing more and more frustrated as Monterey County officials continue to caution that a return home is not likely for another week, even as floodwaters have receded in the past few days.

With no access to homes or jobs and no idea when they’ll be able to start rebuilding, many of the Pajaro residents — who were forced to evacuate after a levee breached in the wee hours of the morning Saturday — 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 to nothing.

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

“I feel dazed, stunned and confused,” said Laura Garcia, who stood on the Main Street bridge with her husband and two daughters on Wednesday after being turned back by police. “I just want to make sure my home is okay. Why can’t they let us through? I just don’t understand.”

Monterey County Undersheriff Keith Boyd said Thursday that Pajaro families won’t be able to return to their homes for another week at least as contaminated silt, mud and standing flood water continue to threaten residents’ safety. Even allowing people to return briefly would be unsafe given the possible structural damage to buildings, he insisted, in addition to posing a logistical challenge.

He said the community will remain under an evacuation order for the foreseeable future but that the department’s partners are working diligently to assess the damage and get families back as soon as possible.

Since the flood, Santa Cruz and Monterey county officials have set up hundreds of shelter beds, adding 80 Wednesday night. Right now there are currently 328 people at shelters in the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, with a few dozen more scattered among a local church, the 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 address in the community before we can give an all clear and rescind the order. It’s not today, tomorrow or the next day. Earliest is next week, but it’s hard to say.”

For Garcia and many others, that answer isn’t good enough. Since she was awakened in the middle of the night to evacuate, Garcia hasn’t 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 at Driscoll — finally scrounged up enough money to buy her nine-year-old daughter her first bed. Like many farmworkers, Garcia largely lived paycheck to paycheck, a reality she’s endured since she came to this country about 13 years ago. Now the bed is gone.

Garcia’s husband, Gerardo Piñon, was able to wade through railroad tracks on Sunday to get back to their house and take a video of the damage. The video shows knee-deep water swamping all the furniture, clothes and other belongings that he’s worked hard for years to give to his daughters.

“I’ve been with my husband 13 years, and I’ve never seen him cry,” Garcia said. “He came back from the house sobbing. He said, ‘Everything’s gone. Everything’s finished.’ “

As families continue to wait for answers, Monterey County officials are working to set up new shelter beds and continue to give immediate help to those impacted, including food aid, printing about 2,000 fliers and pamphlets with information about aid and why it will take so long to return home.

With miscommunication and few answers from government officials, some families already are taking it upon themselves to find alternate accommodations. Juana Torres, her husband Heraclio Reyes and three of her four children drove down to Salinas the night of the levee breach to find all the hotels full. They spent a night in their car.

Flood evacuees Heraclio Rayes, left, and Juana Torres, of Pajaro, talk about not being allowed to return home in Watsonville on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. The residents who remain in Pajaro during the flood cannot return if they leave, and those who evacuated cannot return home until the evacuation order is lifted. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

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

Torres was evacuated from Pajaro for nine days back in January when officials thought the levee would breach, but it didn’t. Unable to find a shelter bed back then, Torres paid over $1,200 for hotel stays. She borrowed money from her sister and is still paying her back, but the family is running out of funds, and neither she nor Reyes can return to work. She’s wondering how they’ll pay rent and get out of the debts they’re accruing from this disaster.

Torres and Reyes drove out to the Main Street bridge Wednesday in a futile bid to reach their home.

“We have to go back so that my husband can grab his tools so that then he can find work, then start working, wait until payday and only then start rebuilding everything we lost,” Torres said. “We can’t get started 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’s next.

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

She said she’s starting from zero again, just as when she first came to this country for a new life.

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

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