18 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY february 29-march 6, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com economic development, agriculture, natural and cultural resources and health and social services. This process was meant to guide the allocation of $20 million in state funds designated for Pajaro’s recovery efforts. Based on the information DEM collected from these meetings, it drafted a proposal that included $6 million for direct financial support to businesses and individuals, regardless of immigration status. DEM’s recommendations also earmarked $6.7 million for natural and cultural resources, including $3.5 million for upgrading the Pajaro library to offer additional space for community gatherings; $3 million for community grants to support beautification, education programs and interpretation services; $2.7 million for street improvements and signage; and $1.15 million for emergency preparedness and response— including $500,000 to purchase vehicles such as a flood rescue boat. On Dec. 5, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors heard from the public on DEM’s allocation proposal, with vocal calls for more ($12 million) to go toward direct cash relief. “We want to ensure residents and small businesses are given financial relief first,” said Sister Rosa Dolores Rodriguez, founder of Casa de la Cultura and chair of the Pajaro Disaster Long-Term Recovery Alliance. The supervisors delayed the vote and reconvened the following day to consider moving around funding based on public input. The board ultimately approved an alternative proposal, which increased relief funds to $10 million by cutting funds for recreation upgrades at Pajaro Middle School ($2 million), a welcome sign ($500,000) and a housing study ($500,000). DEM Director Kelsey Scanlon said in December that her department would return to the board with a plan to implement the relief disbursements as soon as possible. The supervisors approved the plan on Tuesday, Feb. 27 that outlines the application and eligibility procedures. Officials will share information on the program during a series of meetings scheduled to begin in March. One year later, this portion of direct aid is now set to start flowing to the people. Since its construction in 1949, the Pajaro River levee has breached several times. Prior to 2023, the most recent flooding occurred in 1995, causing $95 million in damages. It nearly happened again in 2017. While the levee has been on the radar of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for over 50 years, it was considered a low priority based on the cost-benefit formula used when planning future projects. “The areas of Pajaro and Watsonville have very depressed property values and low-income residents,” says Mark Strudley, executive director of the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency. Strudley adds that the formula is changing, with the Corps of Engineers now including other factors, such as recreation, groundwater recharge, habitat and ecosystem benefits. The levee is vulnerable to breaching in part because the Corps of Engineers scraped the riverbed and used that material to build the levee. Now, it imports the materials, compacts it and performs other engineering practices to make it stronger. “That part of the levee where they repaired it is stronger than it ever was, even when it was built,” Strudley says. The levee breached in three areas in March 2023: a partial erosion beneath Highway 1, which caused disruptions in the region after the highway was closed for several days (repairs will conclude in April); the river mouth near the Pacific Ocean and the 400foot breach located a quarter-mile away from the intersection of San Miguel Canyon and San Juan roads. Many Pajaro evacuees fled in the dark, leaving their homes open and carrying only what they were wearing. They stayed with relatives, at hotels, in their cars or at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where the county set up a disaster shelter. Every day, residents went to the Pajaro levee bridge seeking updates, resources and news about when they could return home. DEM estimated about $790 million in damages, including more than $600 million to the ag industry and $100 million in housing (250 residential structures were damaged or destroyed during the flood). It also impacted local infrastructure, including streets, water and sewage systems. When residents could return home, they arrived to a do-not-drink advisory and damaged belongings. In December, attorneys representing hundreds of Pajaro and Watsonville residents and business owners filed a lawsuit against the state of California, Caltrans, the counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey, City of Watsonville, Monterey County Water Resources Agency, Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District and PRFMA. The lawsuit alleges those agencies failed to design, maintain, repair the levee and flood control systems, which caused injuries and damages to Pajaro residents, renters, homeowners and business owners. Two of the firms representing the complainants are Kabateck LLP and Greenberg and Ruby Injury Attorneys, APC, both from Los Angeles County. According to a previous Weekly report, the plaintiffs are seeking damages for over $10,000 per individual. It could take years to play out in court. The Pajaro flood drew national attention with words in headlines such as “neglect,” “racism” and “preventable disaster.” Evacuees were desperate to receive aid and return to their homes, while local, state and federal governments took immediate measures to aid Pajaro residents. For example, on March 28, 2023, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved a moratorium on evictions for people and businesses in Pajaro. On April 3, 24 days after the flood, President Joe Biden signed a Presidential Declaration of Disaster for the County of Monterey—and two months later, the state launched Reach 4 is the third phase of the Pajaro levee project. It will provide 100-year flood protection to the town of Pajaro. The current design proposal for Reach 4 includes a portion of the levee perpendicular to the river but is not set in stone. “There may be opportunities in other project reaches to make adjustments to specific project features that lower costs and increase flood protection,” says Mark Strudley of PRFMA. celia jiménez “The part of the levee where they repaired it is stronger than it ever was, even when it was built.” daniel dreifuss