En un vecindario al oeste de la pequeña comunidad de Porterville en el condado de Tulare, las calles, las casas y los vehículos se han inundado debido a los niveles históricos de lluvia en el Valle de San Joaquín. Jesse Vad/SJV Water

What's at stake:

If President Joe Biden approves Gov. Gavin Newsom's request for a major disaster declaration, it could open the doors to flood victims in seven California counties being eligible for financial assistance from the federal government.

Has flooding impacted you? Read our guide on how to navigate flood response in Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties.

Gov. Gavin Newsom requested federal assistance from President Joe Biden on Tuesday for flood victims in several communities, including some in southern San Joaquin Valley, after atmospheric rivers hosed down California over multiple weeks in March.

Newsom’s request, if approved by Biden, would make the residents of seven California counties, including Tulare and Kern, eligible for individual assistance — the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) chief program that provides financial assistance to flood victims. Newsom also requested federal assistance for damaged public property and infrastructure in four counties, including Tulare County. 

The request was a culmination of federal, state and local authorities doing damage assessments over the past weeks in flooded communities. In the request for a major disaster declaration, Newsom described how late winter storms have created a state of emergency in 47 California counties, and that the state has sustained an estimated $329 million in private property loss, according to ongoing preliminary assessments. 

Newsom highlighted that countless Californians in vulnerable situations, including those in poverty or without home or flood insurance, elevate the need for individual federal help. 

“This lack of insurance, compounded by the low socioeconomic status of the communities identified in this request, strongly suggests that these vulnerable individuals and households have little to no ability to afford repairs to their homes and/or personal property losses,” Newsom wrote in his declaration request.

Cal Fire crews fill sandbags for residents in Allensworth. Jesse Vad/SJV Water

Biden issuing approval would make flood victims eligible for federal financial assistance 

People in need of direct financial assistance typically look to FEMA and its individual assistance program, which provides financial assistance to flood victims. California counties typically do not have programs to provide direct financial assistance to flood victims. On the state level, some measures have emerged to help those ineligible for federal assistance, including undocumented people

That means the bulk of financial assistance for flood victims comes from FEMA, said Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson with California’s Office of Emergency Services. As of right now, no one in California is eligible for FEMA’s individual assistance program. 

However, that could change if Biden approves Newsom’s request for a major disaster declaration, but only for residents of the seven counties listed in the request: Tulare, Kern, Mariposa, Monterey, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Tuolumne counties. 

“The approval of a major disaster declaration is what sets in motion that sort of financial resource for individuals and families,” Ferguson said. 

Until Biden decides on Newsom’s request, local authorities are continuing to recommend residents complete county-specific forms to report property damage, like in Tulare County.

“That helps us get out there and do damage assessments,” said Andrew Lockman, a spokesperson with Tulare County’s Office of Emergency Services. “So that will give us an opportunity to go back and use that list of individuals to contact them and advise them that these assistance programs are now available.”

A previous emergency declaration on March 8, which Biden approved, sought direct relief for damage to public property in 34 California counties, but that request did not include financial assistance for flood victims under FEMA’s individual assistance program. 

Dozens of sandbags line the perimeter of homes in Orosi, California to keep floodwaters from encroaching inside. Jesse Vad/SJV Water

Preliminary damage assessments show a harrowing picture

Newsom’s declaration request lists out several details that have come from preliminary damage assessments. For example, assessments in Tulare County, which have yet to be fully completed, show that two homes have been completely destroyed, another 101 homes have been majorly damaged, and 52 others had minor damage. 

Those numbers are expected to rise when assessments are complete, especially since Cal Fire crews have identified more damage across Tulare County. According to Cal Fire’s March 29 flood incident report in Tulare County, crews have found seven structures destroyed, 778 other structures damaged, and another 311 affected. 

Tulare County residents are also unlikely to have the right insurance to recover from a historically volatile and stormy winter. About 32% of Tulare County residents do not have homeowners or personal property insurance, and less than 5% have flood insurance, according to Newsom’s declaration request. Tulare County is also projected to have at least $60 million in agricultural losses.

Kern County is facing many of the same concerns, as ongoing preliminary damage assessments show 10 homes destroyed, 16 others with major damage and another 61 with minor damage. The county’s farmers are estimated to have $72 million in agricultural loss. 

About 35% of Kern county’s residents do not have homeowners or personal property insurance and only 5% have flood insurance. 

“Furthermore, 49% of all households in the county are considered extremely low-, very low- or low-income,” and as Newsom wrote in his declaration request, “Kern County is considered to be highly socially vulnerable, ranking in the 94th percentile for overall social vulnerability.”

Farmland in rural Tulare County flooded after atmospheric rivers brought historic rainfall to the region in mid-March. Jesse Vad/SJV Water Credit: Jesse Vad/SJV Water

In the eastern Tulare County community of Springville, another crisis has unfolded: the community’s wastewater treatment plant suffered a failure, so plant workers were forced to hand-pump raw sewage into a pond basin which is now at high risk of overflowing. If it does, it would spread wastewater across the community through floodwaters. The damage sustained by the plant exceeds $8 million, according to an initial FEMA assessment.

Another situation unfolding in Tulare County just southwest of Springville is at the Schafer Dam, which is actively spilling water at 6,000 cubic feet per second. On March 15, it spilled at a high of 12,500 cubic feet per second, due to high levels of rainfall dramatically raising water levels. Debris mixed in flows from the dam is also causing major breaks in the Tule River, which could cause uncontrolled flooding. 

But a bigger issue looms in the near future: when the historically massive snowpack in the Southern Sierra Nevada melts and runs off into the very same communities that just flooded in March, will they be prepared for it? Do they even have enough time to prepare? The worst is yet to come.

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.

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