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California flooding harmed 4 out of 5 households in this city. A study tallies the damage

 Debris and water damaged furniture on the side of a road.
Photo by Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters / Catchlight Local
Debris and water damaged furniture on the side of a road in Planada on Feb. 8, 2023. The town was hit by flooding in January after heavy rainstorms rolled through the area.

How do you put a price tag on a disaster?

Researchers at the University of California, Merced attempted to do just that for a small farmworker town in the northern San Joaquin Valley still struggling with the economic fallout of historic flooding.

In January, the unincorporated community of Planada, just east of Merced, was the first of many towns in the Central Valley and elsewhere to flood in what became several months of storms. When the levee on a nearby creek failed, half the town flooded and displaced thousands of people.

Now, five months later, many are still recovering from staggering economic loss and hardships.

“So many of us have worked for years building up savings to purchase a home here,” wrote Planada resident Anastacio Rosales in an op-ed for CalMatters.

“That is why it was heartbreaking for us when the homes we labored so much for were damaged or completely destroyed in the January floods. These were more than houses – they were symbols of a lifetime of hard work.”

Teams of researchers paired with community outreach workers knocked on doors in late April to find out how many homes and vehicles were damaged or destroyed, how many weeks of pay the mostly low-income residents lost in floods, and how much — if any — government assistance they received.

The answers paint a bleak picture of an estimated $20-million-plus loss to the town of 4,000, as people who were living on below-average incomes still struggle to return to normal life after the flood.

Floods hit most homes

Assemblymember Esmerelda Soria, a Democrat from Fresno, said she and other state officials requested the UC Merced study to quantify the loss. They hope it becomes evidence to support more funding for Planada and other towns.

“We’re talking about some very vulnerable people in our community who are also essential workers,” Soria said. “We can’t forget about these essential workers, because they did a lot during COVID and are an important part of our community.”

 A red truck driving through a flooded neighborhood street.
Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters / CatchLight Local
Residents in a Planada drive through a flooded neighborhood on Jan. 11, 2023. The town was under evacuation orders after a series of storms flooded the area.

The resulting study published by the UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, draws from this community survey of 236 households. Researchers estimated more than 700 Planada households – about 83% of the town – experienced some type of economic loss from flooding on Jan. 8.

Before the flood, census data showed more than 35% of families lived below the poverty line, and 97% of the nearly 4,000 residents were Hispanic or Latino.

Overall an estimated 64% of flood-damaged households didn’t qualify for federal aid; 41% were ineligible likely because of legal status. People in more than half the households lost work because of flood damage, and almost half of flood-affected households lost a vehicle they used to get to work.

  • Only 17% of Planada households emerged unharmed without losing property or missing work
  • 41% of households had no property loss but had at least one worker miss work because of flooding. The median number of days of lost work per household was 21 days. 
  • Among households that lost work, 57% had no one eligible for unemployment insurance
  • Half the households are renters and 94% of them did not have flood insurance
  • An estimated 211 households lost at least one car, 95 lost a heating system and 108 lost a cooling system
  • About 56% of households with property damage said they now have issues with mold.

Rising rent, unpaid bills

Even after the disaster, many of Planada’s residents reported getting few or no breaks from financial obligations, the study showed.

  • More than one-quarter of renters said landlords increased their rent or threatened to evict them
  • About 43% of households that lost work or experienced property damage also reported falling behind on bills, such as rent or mortgage payments, utilities, or both. Unpaid bills averaged $1,448 per household.

Edward Flores, one of the main authors of the study, said the Planada research highlights how insufficiently state and federal officials approach disaster aid.

A disaster can easily cause property damage and put household breadwinners out of work for days or weeks, Flores said. Undocumented residents like many in Planada already were at an economic disadvantage, he said, but regular access to unemployment benefits could have provided a better economic safety net, compared to one-time disaster payments.

“I think this underscores the point that we need something more than just disaster response policy,” Flores said. “We also need to fix those holes in the economic safety net that currently exist.”

Rudy Diaz enters his flood-damaged home wearing gloves.
Larry Valenzuela
CalMatters / CatchLight Local
Planada resident Rudy Diaz clearing out his home after a flood on Jan. 11, 2023. Diaz was taking out valuables to prevent looters from targeting his home.

California is due to begin dispensing millions in direct financial assistance in June to undocumented residents like those in Planada who are ineligible for federal disaster aid.

The new program, called Storm Assistance for Immigrants Project, could give qualifying households up to $4,500 if they experienced damage from storms and flooding this year and are in counties designated major disaster zones that were approved for individual assistance from FEMA. Partnering nonprofits will help the state verify which applicants are eligible.

Disaster aid vs. unemployment checks

California lawmakers are considering a few different funding options that could also help Planada flooding victims. One, a budget proposal, would allocate $20 million for flood recovery and disaster response in Planada, as well as an additional $20 million for the same purpose in Pajaro, a farmworking town in Monterey County in similar straits.

Lawmakers are also considering legislation that would grant undocumented workers a version of unemployment insurance.

The proposed budget – still undergoing changes amid negotiations with the governor’s office – does not include appropriations for expanding unemployment insurance. Instead, it recommends a working group study the issue during the next legislative session.

Flores believes unemployment benefits would be more helpful to undocumented people trying to recover from floods. The $300 a week per worker proposed by the still-pending legislation would provide more economic security, he said, than the new plan for disaster relief.

“I think this is the beginning of very long and difficult conversations that we need to have about what economic and climate resilience means in a context when we have an increasing threat of climate disasters,” Flores said. “It’s easier to talk about when we didn’t have a pandemic and catastrophic wildfires and floods … It’s harder to have these conversations about the aid that is needed, but it’s important if this is the way the world is increasingly evolving towards, then we have to be prepared.”