On the night of Jan. 9, amid pelting rain, a levee along Miles Creek in Merced County, California, failed, flooding half the small town of Planada, devastating the tightknit community that is home to many undocumented farmworkers.
Thousands of people were displaced.
Because the town was not officially in a flood zone, few had flood insurance. Because the town was poor, even fewer had the capital to rebuild. And because so many were undocumented, few were eligible for much money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, leading to disappointment and appeals, according to residents and Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa.
After people recovered from the initial shock, many expressed frustration at how few options were available to them.
A 13-year-old resident, Anjian Aguilar, spoke for many when she blasted county and state officials at a community meeting in February. “Will this city finally get the care it needs?” she asked. The town, she said, has “no storm drains, no streetlights. We are literally a town of Hispanics left in the dark. Look around. You have a community that is angry.”
As the months went by, many residents found ways to rebuild. Families worked together, hauling debris, reinstalling drywall, hammering and painting.
And yet hundreds more remained displaced.
County officials set up temporary emergency housing at a local farmworker housing center. Ten families remained there through the end of May, and Tuesday night they were told they had to leave, Espinosa said.
“It’s just unacceptable,” the supervisor said of the lack of support for the town by government agencies. “It’s just so shameful.”
State money is welcome and necessary, he said, noting that on top of the damage to their homes, many farmworkers suffered loss of wages, as fields were flooded and agriculture disrupted by winter storms.
Months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state Department of Social Services would mobilize its Rapid Response Fund to support “undocumented workers and communities ineligible for FEMA individual assistance due to immigration status.” Now, help appears to be on the way.
The Storm Assistance for Immigrants project, a $95 million program, will help undocumented workers affected by floods between December 2022 and April 2023 by “providing funding for food, shelter and basic needs,” department spokesperson Scott Murray said.
Case management and direct assistance will be available starting this month through nonprofits in the 22 California counties where President Joe Biden issued major disaster declarations. It is scheduled to last until the end of May 2024 or until funding runs out, Murray said.
Adults can qualify for assistance if they lived or worked in the counties between December and April and can prove hardship. They will be eligible for up to $1,500, with a household maximum of $4,500, the department’s website says.
Maria Salina, 46, her husband and their six children have been living in government-sponsored housing at the Felix Torres Migrant Center since their home in Planada flooded in January.
Their landlord has not yet finished rebuilding the house they rented, said Salina’s son Giovanni Lua, 24. Housing options are few and prohibitively expensive, he said. With county officials saying it’s time for them to leave Felix Torres, they are afraid they may have to get out before they’re able to secure housing.
The family, which has lived in Planada since 1996, said it had been frustrated in its efforts to get FEMA assistance. It’s felt like an injustice on top of an earlier injustice — the failure to maintain the levees protecting the town.
Lua said he welcomed the money from the state but also worried it might be too little, too late. Many in Planada had to make other plans, he said, because they couldn’t secure housing or enough money to return to their community.
“By the time help does get here,” Lua said, “the people who needed it may not be here.”
Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur, a community resource center in Pescadero, Calif., said she hadn’t yet heard details about the funding release. Although Puente isn’t listed as San Mateo County’s designated nonprofit for this funding — Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco is — the agency is involved in the community, providing aid to farmworkers.
Pescadero and much of the Central Coast were walloped this spring by atmospheric-river storms that eroded the coastline, submerged farm fields, flooded homes and damaged roads. Many migrant farmers and workers struggled — and many still struggle — to find work after the historic soaking.
Although she welcomes the state funds, Mancera said she was concerned about the program’s rollout, recalling problems with the process of pandemic-era funding. Benefits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Food Worker Relief Grant Program also were distributed through nonprofits — and, she said, it was bumpy.
“It was really hard to access,” she said. “Phones rang, and people didn’t get through. I’m trying to pass on that feedback to state folks.”
Luis Alejo, a Monterey County supervisor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Times. On Twitter, Alejo wrote: “It took some time, but thankful the assistance for our undocumented flood victims is finally on its way!”
For farmworkers, the toll of the recent flooding adds to hardships from other disasters in recent years, including droughts and heat waves, said Michael Méndez, an assistant professor of environmental policy and planning at UC Irvine.
He said bouts of extreme weather, which are growing more intense with climate change, are hitting farmworkers disproportionately.
“These individuals are at the forefront of the climate crisis,” Méndez said. “There’s no other demographic group in California that’s experiencing such a massive displacement from the climate crisis.”
He said inundated fields in parts of the state were forcing some farmworkers to leave and look for work elsewhere.
“It is the great California climate displacement,” Méndez said. “No other population in the state — it’s year after year, climate-induced disaster after disaster — has experienced it more than these migrant farmworker communities, from wildfires, heat waves, drought — and, of course, now flooding.
“More needs to be done,” he said, “to safeguard some of these communities that are most in need.”
The farmlands that have been flooded have left many agricultural workers unemployed, Méndez said, “with very little resources to be able to sustain themselves because there is no social safety net for undocumented individuals.”
“At least 50% of farmworkers are estimated to be undocumented, and they’re ineligible for unemployment assistance and, of course, FEMA funding from the federal level for disaster aid,” Méndez said.
California needs a “disaster safety net” for undocumented people, he said. “This is something I’ve been advocating for with community groups since the 2017 wildfires in Northern California and the Central Coast.
“With drought, wildfires, heat waves, and now flooding — or the compounding of these — a state government permanent disaster fund is critically needed,” he said.
“It’s the new climate reality in California.”