Local Nonprofits: First on the Scene in Pajaro, and There to Stay

More than a dozen organizations and collectives provided $1.5 million in aid

PUBLISHED APR 19, 2023 4:30 P.M.
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María Ramos hands cash to an Indigenous farm worker in Pajaro after a levee failure flooded the town.

María Ramos hands cash to an Indigenous farm worker in Pajaro after a levee failure flooded the town.   Photo courtesy of María Ramos/Campesina Womb Justice

On March 10 around midnight, the small unincorporated town of Pajaro on the northern edge of Monterey County began pooling with water. The levee on the Monterey County side of the Pajaro River, which divides Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, had failed. The muddy water advanced, displacing many of its 2,882 residents.

It was more than three weeks after the levee breached that President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration, activating the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide much-needed aid to Monterey and six other storm-battered counties in California.

While state and federal government response has been slow, local grassroots organizations were quick to act. These groups pushed hard to address the extraordinary needs of the mostly low-income residents, many of whom are undocumented farmworkers. In the aftermath of the Pajaro flood, more than a dozen local organizations and grassroots collectives have provided $1.5 million in aid.

California Local talked to some of these local heroes to learn how they were able to hit the ground running in the initial phase of the disaster and respond more quickly than state and federal forces. These community leaders also say that response to this latest flood continues a trend that has them pivoting to become first responders to environmental disasters.

Local Groups Step Up

The Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County has granted just shy of a million dollars in aid to organizations assisting residents of Pajaro since the levee failure. Of this, $788,000 is for cash aid and basic needs, according to Kevin Heuer, the organization’s director of engagement and impact. Even after federal assistance arrives, there are still barriers to accessing the aid, and undocumented households are ineligible. The role of nonprofits, according to Heuer, is to fill those gaps in assistance.

“It’s a lot to ask—our nonprofit workforce is not really built for this,” Heuer says. “The work that’s come out of that from nonprofit partners has been remarkable and really laudatory, but it’s been a strain.”

Campesina Womb Justice, an entirely volunteer-run group that normally provides prenatal and birth care to Indigenous farmworkers, transformed into a frontline responder for flood victims. A GoFundMe started by Campesina Womb Justice reached $100,000 in its first week with an average donation of less than $100, and in total the organization brought in nearly $200,000 specifically for Pajaro. The majority of this money has been distributed in cash directly to individuals affected by the flood.

The group’s founder, María Ascención Ramos Bracamontes, started distributing funds the day after the levee failed. After placing $500 each in the hands of 10 families over the weekend—the entirety of the organization’s modest savings, earmarked for a doula program—she started the GoFundMe campaign. By March 28, the day Governor Gavin Newsom sent a disaster declaration request to the president, Ramos and a team of volunteers had already reached 65 Pajaro residents and distributed $32,500 in cash.

As of April 13, they had distributed $165,000 to a total of 330 Pajaro families, prioritizing primarily Mixtec-speaking Indigenous farmworkers who are undocumented and ineligible for FEMA assistance. Of this total, $67,500 was granted to other groups providing direct aid, including De Sol a Sol Colectiva which distributed the funds to 75 Pajaro families, a representative stated in an email.

Monterey County produces over $3.9 billion in agricultural output annually, according to the Monterey County Farm Bureau.
Photo by Marijs Jan/Shutterstock

First Line of Defense

Paz Padilla, director of programs and impact for the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz—another key organization providing relief and direct financial aid—says that since the start of the pandemic the organization has more often been responding to crises. “In COVID, we went ahead and started doing crisis assistance,” Padilla says. “And it just has felt that ever since that happened, we’ve just been in crisis mode.” The organization has distributed over $300,000 in unrestricted cash aid to residents of Pajaro since March.

Community Bridges, a local organization with resource centers across Santa Cruz County, and one of the largest recipients of aid from both community foundations, has distributed $550,000 in cash aid to more than 1,500 Pajaro residents since the levee failed. Tony Nuñez, communications manager for Community Bridges, says they had staff at the evacuation site within hours of the levee’s failure.

“We can move faster than local government; we can move faster than state or federal government. And we’re often the first responders in terms of providing financial services to people in times of need,” Nuñez says.

Though the organization is well set-up to respond to disasters quickly and efficiently, Nuñez admits that the scope of recent disasters strained the organization’s capacity. Addressing the needs of the Pajaro community “has been, to put it modestly, very challenging on our family resource staff,” Nuñez said.

Community Bridges also played an important role in advocating for the state government to respond to the situation, orchestrating a campaign that saw more than a thousand people send letters urging the governor to request a disaster declaration from the president.

As of April 13, 566 claims totaling $533,520 in federal assistance were approved for Monterey County, although none of these funds have been disbursed yet.

The Road to Recovery

The levee failure and ensuing crisis has received a lot of media attention so far, with reporters highlighting the historical neglect that resulted in Pajaro being vulnerable to such a disaster—and the relatively slow response on the part of the state and federal government. But as the media spotlight recedes with the muddy waters of the river, the area faces a long road to recovery.

One group that hopes to partially address longer-term needs is UndocuFund of Monterey Bay, a collaborative project of Ventures. “The biggest harm of this storm is really the breadth of impact on farm workers,” says Maria Cadenas, executive director of Ventures, “because even if they didn’t live in a flood-impacted area, their fields were soaking wet.” UndocuFund hopes to support at least 500 families who do not qualify for FEMA aid by providing guaranteed income for three months or longer.

While this will alleviate some of the financial loss, Cadenas says, “it’s impossible for philanthropy to replace a social safety net.” That is the responsibility of the government, she suggests. One longer-term solution is the passage of Senate Bill 277, which would extend unemployment benefits to undocumented workers in California. “You cannot have an entire industry dependent on undocumented workers and then not have safety nets,” Cadenas says.

Ramos believes there is a need not just for basic survival resources in Pajaro, but also for cultural and linguistic inclusion. Indigenous farm workers are “making the area rich with agriculture, and they need a lot more credit, respect and dignity,” Ramos says. “A lot of healing needs to happen.”

Community Bridges will play an important role in the recovery by providing long-term case management, including assistance with filing insurance and FEMA claims. Nuñez believes responding to environmental disasters may become a larger part of the organization’s work as human-caused climate change leads to more frequent extreme weather events. “Family resource centers like ours, and there are several across the state, are going to have to step up,” Nuñez says. “These types of natural disasters are going to be more common.”

To aid in these ongoing recovery efforts, community members can make contributions to the following organizations:

Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County
Community Foundation for Monterey County
Community Bridges
Community Action Board
Casa de la Cultura
Salud Para la Gente
Campesina Womb Justice
Tierras Milperas
De Sol a Sol Colectiva
Raíces y Cariño
Center for Farmworker Families

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