Isabel Ramirez, 24, speaks about being evacuated due to flooding at her home in Planada, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. Ramirez recently returned to her home after the Merced County Sheriff’s Office downgraded an evacuation order to a warning. Andrew Kuhn

What's at stake?

New research show that most Planada households that experienced flood-damage were ineligible for federal disaster aid.

Central Valley legislators are asking for millions of dollars from the state of California to fund outstanding disaster response needs in Planada, a Merced County unincorporated town that flooded during January’s atmospheric river.

State Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Merced, supported by Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, a Democrat from Fresno, have submitted a request for $20 million to fund repairs for flood-damaged households, rental assistance, infrastructure needs, vehicle needs and more. The funding is critical, Planada residents and community members said, because federal relief funds didn’t cover the entire scope of the damage and some residents were ineligible for aid.

Caballero “is currently making a budget request specific to the needs of residents in Planada and will continue to work to ensure that they are able to recover,” Elisa Rivera, communications director for Caballero, said in a statement to The Bee/Fresnoland. Soria also confirmed in an email statement that she supports the request.

During the Jan. 9 storm, large swaths of the majority Latino, unincorporated town of 4,000 residents was submerged under water, forcing residents to evacuate their water-logged homes. Since then, Planada residents, many of whom are agricultural workers, have been grappling with job and economic loss and mold-infested living conditions, as they try to rebuild their homes, community and elementary school.

In late January, the Biden administration approved Merced County for a Major Disaster Declaration, which made the county eligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And while eligible residents did receive some federal relief, residents and Central Valley legislators say many community members were left out.

New research from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center backs that up. A report released last week finds that 83% of Planada households experienced at least one form of economic loss following the flood. The survey of 236 households found that 57% of Planada households with one or more workers who experienced job loss were ineligible for unemployment insurance, and 64% of households with flood-damaged property were ineligible for federal disaster aid.

The funding request “is a drop in the bucket” of what the community still needs, Sol Rivas, executive director of Valley Onward, said in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland.

Community advocates, Rivas said, are trying to ensure the county, state and federal governments don’t forget about Planada.

“There’s a long-term recovery process,” Rivas said, “Our hope is that legislators see that and advocate for Planada, and move this ask forward.”

An aerial photo of flooding in Planada’s Houlihan Park in Merced County is shown here. Credit: County of Merced Facebook page

Lawmakers request $11 million for home remediation in Planada

The lawmakers’ request aims to fill huge gaps in funding for home repair, infrastructure and transportation needs.

The bulk of the budget request, or $11.7 million, would be for home remediation costs for flood-affected households.

Researchers found that of the 461 households that experienced flooding, 74% lost property inside their home such as furniture and beds. Meanwhile, 56% of the homes have issues with mold, most of which is a result of the flood.

Federal funds didn’t cover the total costs of damage to Planada households. Of the 164 Planada homeowners that received inspections, the average estimated remediation cost was $34,518 per home, according to the report. Yet the average amount of aid was only $11,628 for the 133 aid-qualifying households.

Another big chunk of the funding request, or $5 million, would be for Planada’s infrastructure needs.

Olivia Gomez, a Planada resident and community liaison for Planada Elementary School District, said the biggest need is fixing the canal infrastructure and other mitigation efforts in order to prevent a future flood, and pointed out that the region experienced similar flood damage five years ago.

“How do we really invest the money where it needs to be invested in order for this not to happen again?” she said.

Madeline Harris, a regional policy manager for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, agreed. She said state help is crucial given the additional hurdles that rural, unincorporated farmworker communities face.

“Not only are disadvantaged communities and frontline communities more vulnerable to climate change and disasters,” Harris said, “but they also are behind on investments to infrastructure to prevent this from happening, and to recover.”

Another chunk of funding, or $1.1 million, would be for vehicles. For a rural agricultural workforce with few public transportation options, cars are essential to drive to work.

UC Merced researchers found that 46% of flood-affected households lost at least one vehicle that was used to drive to work. Meanwhile, 30 households lost more than one car.

Edward Flores, faculty director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, said in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Friday that it was a privilege to work on this research on “one of the biggest climate disasters that happened in our state right here in our backyard.” He said this type of effort — that engages public officials, community organizations on the ground, and research to inform policy decisions — “could be a model” for other communities in flood-impacted areas.

Will the governor fund Planada’s outstanding needs?

It’s not immediately clear if the state will fund Planada’s outstanding disaster needs, especially as California is expected to have an ongoing budget deficit and lower than expected revenues into the 2023-2024 fiscal year.

Less than a year ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom boasted the state had a $97 billion dollar budget surplus.

Central Valley legislators and community groups are hopeful and say the state needs to step up.

“We do know that we’re in a deficit year,” Harris of Leadership Counsel said. “We know that the governor is essentially asking legislators not to make budget requests.”

But “when there’s an emergency,” Harris said, “you have to respond to it.”

Planada isn’t the only community asking for state assistance.

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said in a tweet Thursday that it has been over a month since he met with state emergency response officials to seek rapid response assistance for undocumented residents who don’t qualify for federal assistance, but there is still “no such assistance on the ground.”

“California must do better for its flood victims,” Alejo said, “especially in disadvantaged communities.”

Support our nonprofit journalism.


Your contribution is appreciated.

Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *