Editor’s note: This story was reported and edited by the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, cvlocaljournalism.org, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced, CA.
By Brianna Vaccari and Michelle Morgante
Planada, Calif. (CVJC) – “Ojalá.” The word, rooted in Arabic, is said by Spanish-speakers to mean “hopefully” or “God willing.”
It is said frequently now by residents of Planada, the small Merced County community devastated six months ago by a great flood. As many struggle to repair their homes, replace destroyed cars and belongings, or make up for lost work, they are warily hopeful that promised relief will actually reach them.
In recent weeks, state representatives and community leaders have assured them help is coming. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday signed a budget bill that allocates $20 million for the people of Planada. Community organizers say they just need to wait a bit longer and they’ll see it.
“Ojalá,” said Ramiro Rosas, an agricultural worker whose rain-damaged roof remains unpatched.
“Well, there’s nothing else for us to do other than wait,” Rosas, a 35-year resident of Planada, said in Spanish after a gathering last week to discuss the state money. “Ojalá, they will help us. Because, honestly, the help is needed.”
Rosas and his sister, Juanita Rosas de Cabrera, were among some 200 people who filled Planada’s middle school gym for the July 6 meeting.
Community organizers led the residents in small-group discussions and collected their ideas on how the promised funds should be distributed. One common sentiment was clear: Planada residents have little faith in the Merced County officials who will be entrusted to administer the money and distribute it properly.
This is a moment for the county to recognize the needs of Planada and act on our behalf, said Rosas de Cabrera. “We need someone who truly has this ability, this heart, to want to help the people.”While residents welcome the budget win, they’re also “waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said Madeline Harris, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit serving the San Joaquin Valley.
“Every time I go to Planada and I meet with folks, I feel the devastation and people’s sense of desperation,” Harris told the CVJC in a telephone interview. “It just weighs so heavily on the whole community.”
Located amid fields and orchards east of Merced, nearly all of Planada’s 4,000 residents are Latino with roots in Mexico, according to U.S. Census figures. Spanish is the town’s primary language. According to researchers at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, about half of Planada’s properties are occupied by renters. One-third of the community’s labor force works in agriculture, Census estimates show.
One night, amid a downpour in early January, a levee on nearby Miles Creek broke open, catching the community by surprise. Floodwaters inundated the town, ruining homes and damaging the elementary school, the post office, the fire station and other community facilities.
More than 80% of Planada households suffered losses due to the flooding, according to the UC Merced researchers. But so far, few were able to access disaster aid, such as federal relief restricted to U.S. citizens or unemployment benefits unavailable to those in informal or cash-pay jobs. The state budget allocation specifically states the aid will be available to all residents, regardless of immigration status.
In a tough budget year for the state of California, state Sen. Anna Caballero and Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, Democrats who represent Merced County, secured the $20 million to help people recoup lost wages, pay off rent accrued during their evacuations, replace vehicles and repair their homes.
“Our mostly-farmworking community of Planada has faced immense distress from devastating flooding. This funding will help provide much-needed home and vehicle recovery assistance,” Soria said in a news release.
Although Newsom signed the bill for the funding Monday, it likely will be months before it reaches residents. Merced County will receive and administer the funding, and state and local representatives will iron out distribution details in the coming weeks.
Merced County Supervisor Scott Silveira said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that he spoke with Caballero about “managing expectations” for the money.
“Ultimately, I know that there’s some groups that want that money yesterday, but (I) just want to put it out there that we can’t distribute the money until we get it,” he said. “I know that the senator and our assemblywoman are working to get that money here as quick as possible.”
In the months following the flood, residents criticized Merced County leaders for not doing enough to help, and they called on Newsom to make good on his promises after he visited the community to survey the flood damage.
About 250 residents are preparing to file a class-action lawsuit against Merced County, the city of Merced and Merced Irrigation District over the flooding, arguing it was a preventable disaster that occurred due to negligence in maintaining waterways.
Alicia Rodriguez, who runs the St. Vincent de Paul Planada Sacred Heart Conference, said residents who, for months, opened their homes to show the damage to camera crews, reporters and politicians ended up feeling abandoned.
“It was a circus. It came in and came out,” Rodriguez told CVJC in an interview. “They feel violated because they opened up their tears and heart.”
Rodriguez, a well-known community leader who regularly posts updates about Planada to a Facebook page, said she’s hopeful Merced County leaders will use the state funding as another chance to work collaboratively with residents and community-based organizations.
“This is the opportunity for the county and the state to make it right,” she said. “It’s a second chance. … It’s a blessing and a chance to do the right thing. We have this chance to do it for the residents. That’s what I’m excited about.”
There were no Merced County representatives at the July 6 community meeting, which was hosted by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center along with Leadership Counsel and another nonprofit, Valley Onward. Representatives from Caballero and Soria’s offices were present.
Two days later, however, Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, whose district includes Planada, joined a crew handing out food and bottled water to scores of residents during an event organized by the UFW Foundation, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Cultiva la Salud.
Espinoza said the county will work with community-based organizations to distribute the funding. He acknowledged that many residents paid for repairs themselves and relief has been slow and limited.
“As a county supervisor, we’re doing as much as I can to get the support from the county and other agencies,” he told CVJC during the event.
“This $20 million will greatly benefit this community,” he said. “Hopefully, some of the families will get back on their feet. But, it’s never going to be the same.”
In an email to the CVJC, Merced County spokesman Mike North said officials anticipate the state will provide additional details regarding when the county will receive the money and how it can be used.
“As it becomes available, we’re going to do everything in our power to leverage this funding to best assist our residents affected by the January storms,” North wrote.
Six months after the disaster, much work remains to be done. Homes are mold infested, and many are still stripped to their frames. Residents who were unable to work when floods covered the Valley’s agricultural fields are struggling to make up for lost wages.
Maria Ursua, a mother of four who has lived in Planada for more than 20 years, was among those at the July 8 distribution event. She pulled a cart to carry home the goods – a box of nonperishable food, jugs of drinking water, and bags of fresh grapes and nectarines.
She recalled that the night of the flood, her Chihuahua Coco’s cries awakened her. She opened her front door to find the water already waist high. The fast-moving current swept Coco away before the dog was rescued by Ursua’s son.
Days later, when her family finally returned home, “the house was destroyed completely. It looked like a lake,” she said. Their belongings were scattered all around. The foundation under the house had given out.
The house remains damaged, she said, but hiring people to work on it is expensive.
So far, the family has received aid from church groups and community organizations. “But, very little,” she said. Her son submitted applications for government assistance, but so far, they are still waiting.
Ursua heard about the $20 million that’s marked for Planada and is hopeful it will reach them.
“Yes, I say ‘ojalá’ they give us something,” she said in Spanish.
“Because they come, and they come, and they come. They make us fill out so many applications, and they tell us they are going to bring materials for the houses, that they are going to help us with the labor,” she said. “And no one ever arrives. Never. Not even with a liter of paint. No, nothing.”
She remains hopeful, though, and prays that whoever is deciding how to disburse the money, makes the right decision.
“Ojalá, it is someone who is honest and does things correctly, and that they look at the videos that show what happened to the houses,” she said.
“We’ve really been misled a lot. They’ve only told us promises. They’ve told us ‘We’re going to come, we’re going to give this or that’ and, so far, no. We haven’t seen anything. We’re just waiting and waiting.”