Jessica Sanchez felt awful about the catastrophic flooding that displaced hundreds of people in this Monterey County farm town.
She felt worse when she heard families were sleeping in their cars because some of the shelters had reached capacity and they couldn’t afford hotels.
“I have two daughters and I can’t imagine having to sleep in a car when it’s cold and raining outside,” said Sanchez, 34. “There’s also the fear of a tree falling on them.”
So Tuesday night, she and her friend Sara Perez, 36, joined a group of volunteers to feed those affected by the flood that occurred when the Pajaro River breached a levee late Friday.
The two women handed out foam containers of chicken soup, pan dulce and cups of atole, a hot Mexican drink, near the Pajaro River bridge in Watsonville, across the water from Pajaro, Calif.
Sanchez said it was only the second day they had come together to feed families after at least 70 people, including children, showed up Monday.
“We ran out of food, and I felt so terrible because people were still showing up with their children,” she said.
More than 70 people came again Tuesday night. Some drove, others stepped out of their cars and made their way to the food lines, and some walked across the bridge from their homes in Pajaro with their children.
The families were mostly those from two-story apartment buildings who had refused to evacuate. The town has power and gas but no potable water. Residents collected rainwater that they could use to flush toilets.
At the bridge, volunteers handed out tacos and hot chocolate over police tape that kept people from trying to get back inside Pajaro. A security guard helped pass cases of water to the families.
The arched bridge over the Pajaro River connects the towns of Watsonville and Pajaro, two communities varying in population size and economic power.
Watsonville, located in Santa Cruz County, has a population of nearly 53,000 and a diverse economy including agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Pajaro is lined with mom-and-pop stores and has roughly 3,000 residents, most farmworkers.
Despite being in different counties, they share the same ZIP Code. For people like Perez, they’re closely intertwined through agricultural work.
“Even though they live on the other side of the river, they’re our compatriots, our friends and coworkers,” she said. “That’s the other sad thing about all this is that some of us work picking strawberries over there and now, there’s no work for anyone.”
Sanchez said she’s worried about paying her $1,600 rent and bills due next month. Perez said she pays $1,200 for a studio apartment and doesn’t know how she’ll afford her rent either.
The women said the flooding has hurt farmworkers on both sides of the river, many of whom had been expecting to start work this week.
Sanchez and Perez said they were disappointed that Santa Cruz and Monterey counties had not done more to help families. Some of the flooded residents speak indigenous languages and can’t communicate well in Spanish.
“I knew of one woman at a shelter that wanted a blanket for her grandson, but she didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish really well,” Sanchez said. “I had a friend who was able to help translate for her.”
Officials have not distributed clothes for people who had to leave in the middle of the night without having time to grab things, the women said.
“Some people have been wearing the same clothes for days now; they have no money and can’t afford to go to hotels,” Sanchez said.
She said volunteers have used their own money to provide for some of the people displaced by the floods. One volunteer spent about $200 on food alone; another has used his money to distribute toiletries and socks.
Juan Ruiz, 42, another volunteer, said it was important to lend a hand.
“Sometimes you feel helpless because you want to do more, but we can only help where we can,” he said.
Taking sips of his chicken soup, displaced resident Heriberto Garcia, 66, said he was grateful that people were distributing food. He couldn’t understand why the county didn’t send workers to residents instead of having people go to them.
After Pajaro flooded in 1995, killing two people and causing up to $95 million in economic damage, Garcia said he was hired to help pump water out of the inundated fields.
He said he hopes something similar will happen soon, because he has no money for his $2,200 rent next month.
Nearby, Jose Aguirre, 45, ate a plate of chips.
“I’m very grateful for everyone here for bringing food while we wait to get back into our homes,” he said. “It helps us save a little.”
Aguirre, a farmworker, said he was unable to find space at a shelter and had to rent a hotel room. Paying $103 a day for a room he and his wife share with their 15-year-old daughter, he has enough money to stay for three days, he said. Though he’s unsure what he’ll do next.
“We don’t have any work,” he said. “We all need help, some more than others.”
He took a chip from his plate and gazed out as people continued to arrive at the bridge in search of a warm meal and a respite from the floodwaters.