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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: The historic community in the path of resurging Tulare Lake

Piles of sandbags in a parking lot.
Soreath Hok
Sandbags are piled outside the Allensworth Community Center.

So far, most of the San Joaquin Valley land inundated by Tulare Lake has been cultivated farmland. But homes are at stake too, as the water rises and threatens to overtake the levees and berms that have long kept communities safe and dry. In this interview, Kerry Klein speaks with KVPR’s Soreath Hok about what’s at stake should floodwaters approach the historic, unincorporated community of Allensworth.

Listen to the interview in the player above, and read the transcript below.

SOREATH HOK: Allensworth was established in the early 1900s as the first black settlement in California. And so for a long time, it really did support a lot of African-Americans who came from the South, came westward to find a place where they could get away from the kind of discrimination that was seen around the Jim Crow era. They were able to thrive in their own community for a long time, but they encountered a lot of racial inequality and issues that eventually kind of whittled down their economic Prosperity. So what the town looks like now, it's mostly a town of low-income farmworkers. And so in many ways it's still a disadvantaged community that is struggling economically with not enough resources and a community that really has to rely on each other.

KLEIN: Right, and notably one reason for fewer resources is that this community is unincorporated, right? It doesn't have a city government. And so it doesn't have a direct line to city funding, things like that.

HOK: Right, yeah, the access that they have and the resources they have are kind of a patchwork of agencies.

KLEIN: Right, so Allensworth was in the past of a lot of the water that was overflowing riverbanks early in this flooding situation back in March and is also now in the path of the rising Tulare lake. So what exactly has been happening?

HOK: So they're kind of on the outskirts of where the shoreline used to be and the water hasn't really fully come into the community, but they are seeing it come in for instance on the east side of the town from the White River. And so although they're not seeing widespread flooding and most of the townspeople have really chosen to stay, they are seeing some of it submerge farmland and crops around the area. They're seeing, you know, some homes and streets affected, and at this point, it's really been a wait and see since March.

KLEIN: Right, and you actually were out there in Allensworth talking to residents about this, right?

HOK: Yeah, I talked to a community leader in Allensworth there, Kayode Kadara. He's one of the main people who's been a spokesperson for what's happening. His family's lived in Allensworth for a long time and he talked to me about why everyone is kind of choosing to stay.

KAYODE KADARA: How bad and how high it’ll get, I don't know. In our case, you know, we're here as long as the land is dry around us. We have food, we have water, we have supplies. And if push comes to shove and it's time to go we'll pack up and leave.

KLEIN: Okay, so the flooding situation has improved somewhat but the threat is still there. So how are they finding the time and the funding and the supplies to protect themselves going into spring and summer?

HOK: Yeah, you know the community has really banded together to help each other. They are resourcing donations from outside of the community, or community members are going out and finding ways to bring back supplies that can be shared with other people in the town. They're holding food drives and passing out supplies to cars coming through. So on a day-to-day basis the community is really relying on each other and that's what I found in speaking with Tekoah Kadara, who is the son of Kayode Kada.

TEKOAH KADARA: The community members are resilient, just like the community members were the ones that got out there and stopped the flooding before anyone got there. The community members are in our command center. They're keeping track of donations that come in. Right now we're giving out diapers. We are out here doing what we can for each other.

KLEIN: So not only is Allensworth unincorporated, but also, the response regionally to flooding has been incredibly patchy and fragmented no matter where people are living. And so do the residents of Allensworth feel left out to dry? Do they feel like any agency out there has their back in all of this?

HOK: I would say they feel more helpless than anything, you know. it really comes down to an issue of power, who has it and how much power do they have. In Allensworth when you're talking about an underserved community that's been around for a long time, that's very small and it relies on each other, they don't have that much power. So they're relying on much more powerful agencies that can control things that are out of their hands. And so they're kind of sitting and waiting and hoping that those people in power make the right decisions that will protect them.

KLEIN: Well, we'll be following up with this throughout the spring and summer for sure. Soreath Hok, fellow reporter with me at KVPR, thanks so much for talking with me today.

HOK: It was a pleasure. Thanks, Kerry

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.