🔥 Residents struggle to survive in flooded Pajaro

Residents struggle to survive in flooded Pajaro

Dora Alvarez, 54, stood on the balcony of her two-story apartment building in the flooded town of Pajaro holding a garden hose next to a rain gutter, swinging the hose toward a rain barrel below for her family to use for cooking and drinking after boiling it.

“As long as they don’t shut the gas off, we’ll be OK,” she said Tuesday.

Alvarez and her family, as well as her neighbor next door, were among a number of residents who chose not to evacuate the small migrant town that became flooded when the levee failed this past weekend, forcing hundreds of residents to flee their homes.

“I know some people criticize us for not leaving, but the flooding danger isn’t here, it’s somewhere else,” Alvarez said, pointing south toward Salinas Road, which was submerged in water.

Standing nearby, her neighbor, Karla Loreto, 35, nodded in agreement.

“We’re also not going to be wandering around in search of danger,” Loreto said.

Alvarez said many families declined to leave because of what happened in January, when many in the town were evacuated. She said many residents returned to find that their homes had been broken into.

She stayed behind this time in part because of her husband’s health. He has liver cancer and has to see his doctor once a week for chemotherapy. The next appointment is this coming Sunday.

“COVID poses a threat for him,” Alvarez said. “We can’t be in a shelter right now, not with his immune system being so weak.”

“It’s better for us to be here in our own home,” she added, “sleeping in our beds and eating the food we have in our fridge.”

The town looked lifeless. Sandbags sat at the entrances of bars, beauty salons and meat markets. Around the area, streets had turned into miniature lakes. The water covered the tires of parked cars; water gushed from underneath manhole coverings. Potatoes, lemons and food packaging debris lay on streets where the water had receded.

Alvarez glanced over at two sheriff’s cruisers parked in the middle of the road near a bridge. She couldn’t understand why they couldn’t let residents back into upper-level apartments or away from the flooded areas. Why couldn’t they let people go in and out to purchase water and food, she wondered? Or maybe just give them those necessities, she added.

“I’m from Mexico,” she said. “We’re used to dealing with disasters there. We know how to survive. We just need a little support.”

Alvarez is no stranger to flooding here. She said in 1995, two years after arriving from Mexico, water blanketed the town.

“It took two months to return home,” she recalled. “Two months. Imagine coming back home and having to throw away all the food you had purchased and having no work?”

She felt the recent storms that had caused the leeve to breach were worse. The strawberries, cabbage and broccoli grown in the region were probably destroyed. Work would disappear again.

Loreto, her neighbor, glanced down at the parking lot below.

“I work at the gas station behind this building,” she said, indicating the direction with her thumb. “I don’t know when they’ll open that gas station.”

Pajaro was flooded last week during powerful storms that caused the levee to break. It could take months to make repairs in the migrant town near Watsonville. Now, another storm was moving in, bringing fresh anxieties.

Sheriff’s cruisers and the National Guard patrolled the area. Reporters stood by flooded areas giving their news updates on television.

Pajaro had always been vulnerable because repairs were never prioritized, in part because officials did not believe it made financial sense to protect the low-income area, interviews and records show.

After the deluge in 1995, Alvarez recalled that officials said they would address the problem. They never did.

“We are the most hardworking people and we help this economy,” she said.

Monterey and Santa Cruz county officials are considering a plan to relieve pressure on the Pajaro River flooding that would include cutting through Highway 1.

At risk from floodwaters are major utility lines, which run through the levee under Highway 1, and a wastewater treatment facility downstream.

Mark Strudley, executive director at Pajaro Regional Flood Management, said the water that is exiting the flood plain is flowing through a gap under Highway 1, which is located between a levee and the highway’s embankment, “so it’s outside the river channel.”

Because of that, “it’s eating through the levee right there. It’s eroding the levee from the flood plain side rather than the river side.”

Strudley said that major utilities — including a sewage and water irrigation pipe — run through the levee. So as the water eats away at the levee, the integrity of these utilities is threatened.

He said its location makes it thorny to fix — the only way to access this gap is through a small, open area that runs between the northbound and southbound lanes of Highway 1.

And because the lanes run across a shallow bridge, an excavator can’t be used to fix the erosion. And it would do no good to drop rocks or sand through the opening between the lanes, because that could potentially damage the utility lines.

“So, if the water continues to erode through the levee such that it reenters the river system… it could overwhelm the river system downstream of Highway 1. And notably, the feature that’s immediately downstream is the wastewater treatment plant for the city of Watsonville, which is on the Santa Cruz County side,” said Strudley.

He said if the water tops or seeps through the levee, “we stand to destroy parts of the plant and may end up releasing untreated sewage to the flood plain to the river, and then ultimately, to the Monterey Bay.”

He said they have three options to deal with the situation.

“One thing you can do is open up the levee downstream of that point, a little ways downstream, but upstream of the wastewater treatment plant to let the water back out onto the flood plain,” he said.

The second option “is actually opening up Highway 1. Basically cutting through Highway 1 and the low spot which is to the south of the river and letting the water out of the flood plain.”

The last option, he said, is to do nothing.

The new storm hasn’t hit as hard as expected — so far — so that may provide the relief needed.

He said a decision is likely going to be made Tuesday afternoon.

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