Planada Flood Relief Plan Remains Unfinished

Planada Flood Relief Plan Remains Unfinished
Planada residents give feedback on a $20 million spending plan for flood victims during a Merced County workshop on Nov. 22 at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School. Photo courtesy of Brianna Vaccari/Central Valley Journalism Collaborative

(Editor’s note: The following article is printed with the permission of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.)

Planada residents were left feeling shocked, disappointed and even angry last month after a community meeting where they expected Merced County officials to present a draft spending plan for $20 million in state flood relief.

Instead, the County collected additional feedback on 19 “decision points” around an environmental study, home and vehicle repairs, small businesses and more.

Merced County hosted several workshops last month collecting feedback from hundreds of residents on how to distribute the money, which was secured through the state budget process by State Senator Anna Caballero (D–Merced) and Assembly Member Esmeralda Soria (D–Fresno).

The small unincorporated community of Planada, populated mostly by Spanish-speaking, Latino agricultural workers, was devastated in January by historic flooding after a levee on a nearby creek was breached during a powerful storm.

“I know a lot of you wanted a complete plan,” Erick Serrato, Merced County’s director of workforce investment, told residents as he opened the meeting, held at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School.

“The truth is, we’re not there yet,” he told the room of about 50 people. “But, we’re on our way.”

County staffers were stationed around the room next to 19 different display boards explaining possible uses for the funding. Residents were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the potential uses for the money. County officials stressed that no suggestions were final, and changes to the plan could still be made based on feedback collected that night.

Reasons Behind Residents’ Disappointment

One of the first boards included a proposal to spend $1.75 million on a study, an environmental review and a plan to capture and divert future flood waters. County officials said that would help the county secure additional funding to improve infrastructure.

County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez told the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative that officials are seeking other funding sources for such a review, but using a portion of the $20 million might help expedite the project.

Other county boards suggested residents would not receive aid for wages lost due to flooded agricultural land. One board said residents would not be reimbursed for home repairs they already completed. Only new repairs for flood damage would be reimbursed.

“This meeting is an insult,” said Planada resident Saul Calderon, who already repaired the flood damage to his home.

“What did they expect? For us to leave the house rotting there for a year? And where are you going to put the family?” he said. “This was not a natural disaster. It was man-made. Merced County should be responsible to pay for all the damages.”

At one point during the meeting, a few residents approached Mendez and Serrato to discuss the meeting. The conversation became tense as more community members joined, but it eventually dissipated.

“I’m mad. I’m real mad,” said Anastacio Rosales Jr. His home sustained major damage from the flood, and he spent his savings and took on additional debt to repair it. He attended each of the workshops and has been vocal about the community’s needs after the flood.

Mendez and Serrato said they were prepared for residents’ reactions. Ever since the funding was secured in the state budget, county officials have said their hardest job would be “managing expectations.”

“We also understand and appreciate that people have suffered through a lot of trauma. It’s been a very difficult experience,” Serrato said. “Just a couple days ago, there was another storm with some rain. So, I think that heightens anxiety because it makes it very present.

“Folks have had a really difficult 10 months, 11 months, after the flood. So, we understand that what they want is immediate relief. So, we are not surprised that there was some reaction around some of the constraints of the funding program,” Serrato said.

“Our goal is always to provide maximum access and flexibility, so we just will continue to work through that.”

For Lydia and Catarino R. Flores—a retired couple who were deemed homeless since the alternative dwelling unit they lived in was a complete loss in the flood—attending the meetings is becoming emotionally taxing.

“It’s exhausting,” Lydia Flores said.

At each meeting, they give feedback advocating for rental assistance or income-based housing options.

“We’re kind of screwed,” Flores said. “Like I said, we’re on every waiting list.

“This is a good thing here. However, not one of these things has anything to do for renters who are displaced, or low-income based housing units,” she said.

The couple has spent the last 10 months couch surfing in relatives’ homes, but they’d like to move back to Planada to be closer to family and their various doctor appointments. The housing options in Merced are expensive, and they fear there might be nowhere in Planada for them to return.

Other Challenges Remain

Mendez pointed out the state funding comes with some constraints. For example, if residents received FEMA aid, other state aid or aid from a nonprofit, the portion of $20 million they receive cannot duplicate that aid. 

“The biggest challenge for us as a county is to develop a program that’s going to address the unique needs because every household experienced something a little bit differently,” he said. “So we have the daunting task of trying to develop a program that’s going to provide assistance to those households that were impacted as the state intends the funding to be utilized.”

County officials initially planned five community meetings and workshops. Depending on how the upcoming Dec. 5 meeting goes, they might add a sixth meeting. They also recognize that many Planada residents return to Mexico during the holiday season and that they must be cognizant of not making decisions during that time.

“We’re juggling between the need to be expedient and move things as quickly as possible but also move at the speed of trust so that people are brought along in that decision-making process,” Serrato said.

Officials are hopeful the application for the funding will open near the start of the year so funding can be distributed by spring.

For Planada residents, that means more waiting.

“We’re getting left behind,” said Joaquin Romero. This kind of engagement should’ve been done in February and March, shortly after the flood, he said.

“The damage is already done, and everything has been fixed up. We corrected everything. And then they’re trying to say we’re not going to get any refunds because we’ve already made all the repairs and everything. So, what’s gonna happen with those $20 million?”

The next workshop is scheduled for Dec. 5 at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School.

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