Article and photos by Kathryn McKenzie
California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited storm-battered Pájaro today, touring flooded areas in a high water rescue vehicle provided by the California National Guard, and later speaking out at a press conference about the devastation that has afflicted this community and others around the state.
Newsom called the flooding “a stacking of stress” on an already overburdened community, which has been affected by the COVID pandemic, the ongoing drought and now a winter of extreme storms.
The governor also acknowledged during the press conference that the crisis is not yet over, since a 12th atmospheric river is heading toward the Central Coast and could hit as soon as this Sunday.
“To see the devastation, to see what I have seen here 48 hours after the peak of that devastation … we are very, very cognizant about the work ahead of us,” Newsom said. “I am not misled by the fact that the waters have receded, quite the contrary. … we are committed to the long haul.
“We’re committed to this community, and you have my word on that.”
The levee breach of the Pájaro River took place in the early morning hours Saturday, due to an 11th atmospheric river storm that added more water to already fully saturated soil. The breach let loose a barrage of floodwater that has damaged homes and businesses as well as infrastructure and agricultural fields. All of Pájaro and parts of Watsonville remain closed, with most major roadways linking Monterey and Santa Cruz counties flooded and closed to traffic, including Highway 1 just south of Watsonville.
Newsom’s visit was kept under wraps until this morning, when local leaders from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties gathered at the Pajaro Valley Golf Course parking lot to await the governor’s arrival.
In addition to Monterey County Sheriff Tina Nieto, those on hand to greet Newsom included Felipe Hernandez, Santa Cruz County supervisor for the Watsonville area; Assemblymember Robert Rivas, whose district includes Pájaro and Watsonville, and who is slated to become the next Assembly Speaker in June; Sonia de la Rosa, Monterey County administrative officer; Glenn Church, Monterey County supervisor whose district includes Pájaro and North Monterey County communities; and Luis Alejo, chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.
Newsom also greeted and thanked members of the National Guard for their service.
Two high water rescue vehicles were used to transport officials through flooded areas so that the governor could see first-hand the damage done by rushing water over the past few days. In addition to looking at the community of Pájaro, the group also traveled to the site of the levee break east of San Juan Road, which has been temporarily repaired and for now is holding back the storm-swollen river.
At the press conference, held with a view of a flooded field in the background, Newsom acknowledged the other levee breaks that have flooded Pájaro in past years, most recently in 1995, when two people died. “Why wasn’t this fixed, this levee, years and years ago, decades ago?” he said.
In a nod to recent reports that the federal government had used an economic calculation in determining which levees to repair, Newsom said that the government can no longer “continue down the path of not considering communities regardless of their economic status,” he said.
“We’re working with the Army Corps (of Engineers) to move away from that socioeconomic frame more broadly because there are other communities, not just this community, that will be impacted by a similar analysis,” he said. “We’ve got to change the way the federal government scores these projects to prioritize those communities that are most vulnerable, period, full stop.”
The state stepped in last year to help fund the long-awaited levee upgrade, a $397 million project due to begin next year and last for five to seven years. However, Newsom said, he will be in talks to see if the timeline can be shortened.
Newsom also pledged to help those affected by the flooding and announced that the United Way in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties will provide $600 checks to farmworkers, regardless of immigration status, thanks to USDA funding.
Newsom also emphasized that he had spoken directly with FEMA and President Biden regarding the Pájaro floods, but also noted there have now been disaster declarations for 43 counties out of 58 in the state.
“I know this has been extremely stressful for everybody. It’s been a stacking of stress, everything everybody’s been through,” said Newsom, saying how this has disproportionally hurt Latino communities. At the same time, he praised the resilience that has carried Pájaro through past disasters.
“It’s in that spirit of resilience and a spirit of recovery that we’re here with great expectations, and expectations that will be met.”
Editor’s note: Kathryn McKenzie is married to Supervisor Glenn Church.
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