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The Central Valley News Collaborative is a project of The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.

‘I want to have peace again.’ Two families – 100 miles apart – face off with California’s floods

After floodwaters destroyed his house at the start of the year, Planada resident Miguel Castillo took out a loan from FEMA to rebuild his family's home
Esther Quintanilla
/
KVPR
After floodwaters destroyed his house at the start of the year, Planada resident Miguel Castillo took out a loan from FEMA to rebuild his family's home

PLANADA, Calif. – On the night of Jan. 10, Miguel Castillo and his wife woke up to the sound of water rushing through their home. They sprung into action, gathering whatever clothes and important documents they could carry in their arms before they evacuated.

A nearby canal breach allowed water to gush into the small Merced County community during a series of atmospheric rivers at the start of the year. Castillo’s neighborhood was one of the streets hit the hardest.

“Water was up to our waist,” Castillo says in Spanish. “On the next street over, on Stanford, the water was higher than that.”

Castillo is one of many Valley residents who’ve been impacted by the historic rainfall caused by atmospheric rivers. Rural communities across the San Joaquin Valley have suffered extreme flooding since the start of the year. Recovery will be an arduous process, especially for undocumented residents who are rarely eligible for federal aid.

A month after the flood, I meet Castillo outside the home he shared with his wife, son and two grandkids. There’s still visible damage throughout the neighborhood. Insulation pulled from homes and soaked furniture line the sidewalks.

Broken toys are littered across Castillo’s yard; raging water had swept them out of the house.

I ask if we can take a look inside his home. He walks up to the front door and says we won’t be able to walk in very far.

The open door reveals wooden beams across the floor, a rough framing of walls, and power tools scattered around what would have been the living room.

“We have to start with the foundation,” Castillos says. “Then the floors, every single wall. We have to rebuild from scratch.”

Castillo had only recently finished paying off his mortgage. But after the flood, he took out a loan of more than $60,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to restore his home.

Deciding to take that loan wasn’t easy, he says. He was getting ready to retire from his job as a retail packer at Foster Farms.

“In three years, I thought I could just enjoy my days at home peacefully,” he says. “But look at what happened. I have to keep working to pay off this loan.“

It could be months before Castillo can move back into his home, he says. For now, he and his wife are staying with relatives in the nearby city of Merced.

New floods, tougher losses

Lewis Creek runs nearby and crosses several rural communities in Tulare County. Though its water levels had dropped from street-level after breaching on March 10, the water still ran with a strong current on March 22, 2023.
Laura S. Diaz
/
the Fresno Bee
Lewis Creek runs nearby and crosses several rural communities in Tulare County. Though its water levels had dropped from street-level after breaching on March 10, the water still ran with a strong current on March 22, 2023.

Two months later - and more than 100 miles south of Planada - the city of Lindsay in the foothills of Tulare County endured a similar disaster.

On March 10, the combination of heavy rainfall and snowpack runoff overwhelmed a canal near the city, causing a breach less than a mile from homes.

Within minutes, more than 20 houses were submerged underwater. The Hernandez family home was one of them.

I meet Filberto Hernandez and his oldest daughter, Aide, nearly 2 weeks after the flood. Before entering their apartment, Aide warns that black mold has already started to spread.

Filberto Hernández Ramírez, 52, and his daughter, Aide Hernández pose for the camera in Lindsay, a city in Tulare County, on March 22, 2023. Hernández Ramírez is an undocumented farmworker from the Mexican state of Jalisco. His family’s been impacted by the recent floods; he was already losing hours of work before their home flooded on March 10.
Laura S. Diaz
/
the Fresno Bee
Filberto Hernández Ramírez, 52, and his daughter, Aide Hernández pose for the camera in Lindsay, a city in Tulare County, on March 22, 2023. Hernández Ramírez is an undocumented farmworker from the Mexican state of Jalisco. His family’s been impacted by the recent floods; he was already losing hours of work before their home flooded on March 10.

“We opened all the windows, all the doors so all the humidity in the air could clear,” she says in Spanish. “It reeks of mold in here.“

The family had recently moved into the apartment in November. Aide says they hadn’t finished unpacking before the flood, and most of their clothing was soaked through, including her mom’s wedding dress.

Inside the apartment, clean clothes, shoes and blankets are packed in boxes and piled onto the kitchen counters. Aide says it’s just a precaution, in case water reaches their home again. She gives a painful laugh as she shows video footage of the muddy water that entered their home the day of the flood.

“The water almost looks like chocolate,” she says. “It was carrying everything on the floor outside in its current.”

Some of Filberto Hernández Ramírez’s and his family’s possessions were in their backyard Lindsay, a city in Tulare County, on March 22, 2023. The family moved to this 2-bedroom apartment after having to leave their 3-bedroom apartment in Visalia. Having trouble storing their belongings, they had left some outside that now are lost or damaged after their home flooded on March 10.
Laura S. Diaz
/
the Fresno Bee
Some of Filberto Hernández Ramírez’s and his family’s possessions were in their backyard in Lindsay, a city in Tulare County, on March 22, 2023. The family moved to this 2-bedroom apartment after having to leave their 3-bedroom apartment in Visalia. Having trouble storing their belongings, they had left some outside that now are lost or damaged after their home flooded on March 10.

Filberto is an undocumented farmworker, who’s beenstruggling to find work since the start of the storms.

The family’s mixed immigration status could impact how quickly - and how much - relief they’re able to receive from FEMA and other government agencies.

Filberto says it could take years to recuperate from the flood.

“We lost a few things,” he says in Spanish, choking up. “Things that we worked hard to get.“

But while homes can be repaired and items can be replaced, other wounds will take longer to heal. Filberto’s wife, Araceli, says she can’t help but feel anxious when the skies open up.

“I want to have peace again,” she says in Spanish. “I don’t want to be scared of the rain when it comes.”

How to get help if you’re impacted by floods in Tulare, Fresno, Kings County

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.