Unhoused woman swept up by raging Central Valley river. ‘Survival instincts kicked in’
PORTERVILLE, Calif. – Standing on the Tule River’s edge in Porterville, Paloma Barreras looks out to the water with a smile. As a Navajo woman, she says she believes the river is alive, bringing life and abundance to the land.
“That's what my mom and my grandpa taught me,” Barreras says. “The river's like a person – she has emotions, too. Just because there's not a physical person doesn't mean it doesn't have its own way of feeling.”
Barreras, who has been unhoused for more than 20 years, has called the banks of the Tule River home. So when a warm rainstorm poured down on the epic Sierra Nevada snowpack on March 10, Barreras says she noticed a shift in the water.
“It was dirty,” she says. “She was murky. You could tell she wasn't happy, you know, because even the smell she was giving off [was bad].”
That day, rivers and streams overflowed their banks, and caused numerous breaches and flooding. In Porterville, the Tule River rose to more than 18 feet, nearly triple its normal gauge.
Barreras was sleeping in her tent when the water came rushing down. The current carried the entire tent some 10 or 15 feet down the river.
“When I realized what was going on…well, survival instincts kicked in,” she says.
Barreras says she latched onto a rope that was tied on a nearby tree. But when she climbed out of the water, she saw a man fall into the current. She jumped back into the roaring river to try to save him.
“It was [a] war in the water,” she says. “I felt bamboo hitting me and my hands were all scratched up.”
After a few minutes of fighting the current, Barreras and the man were able to climb out of the water. Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene, and directed people to the Red Cross shelter at Porterville College.
They sent Barreras to the hospital. She was there for a week due to complications with pneumonia and epilepsy.
Homeless resources during extreme weather
The extreme weather has underscored the need for homeless resources in the Valley.
Some community advocates are concerned that as the weather warms, more people living along the rivers in the Sierra Nevada foothills will be in harm's way.
“We're still holding our breath as a community in terms of what's going to happen as the melt continues to melt,” says Miguel Perez, director of the Kings-Tulare Homeless Alliance.
Perez says the extreme weather events have exaggerated the need for adequate resources for Tulare County’s unhoused residents. According to a report by the Homeless Alliance, nearly 1,000 people in the county have experienced homelessness in the last year.
“We have housing navigators that are working on connecting with each individual and working on creating a [long-term] housing pathway for them,” Perez says.
The report also found the main obstacles to housing include mental health issues and substance abuse. According to Perez, one solution would be the creation of low-barrier shelters – which would not require sobriety or participation in specialized programs.
“There's no low-barrier emergency shelter in the city of Porterville,” he says. “As a matter of fact, there is no operating low barrier shelter anywhere in Kings or Tulare County.”
The cities of Visalia and Tulare have announced plans to build these kinds of shelters, but it could be months before people are able to use their services.
‘Where am I supposed to go?’
And unhoused residents, like Barreras, need more immediate relief.
She spent a week at the hospital after being swept by flood water. Once she was cleared, she went to the shelter. In an email to KVPR, the Red Cross said most seeking refuge were already unhoused prior to the disaster.
Barreras is now back at her old spot along the Tule River bed. To date, areas near the Tule River within Porterville city limits remain under an evacuation order.
“Where am I supposed to go?” she says. “If they would tell me, ‘Hey, there's a place here, you can kick it there day or night.’ OK, I’ll go. But there's not.”
In the meantime, Barreras is trying to reinforce her encampment in case of more flooding. But she says it’s hard to feel safe when her shelter no longer feels like a home. Many of her personal, sentimental items washed away during the flood.
Barreras says she lost the only pictures she had of her children, a locket of her late grandfather’s hair and a pair of moccasins she was saving for her daughter.
“[They’re] gone,” she says while tearing up. “The pictures, the memories…now, my comforts, my treasures are gone. And there is nothing [that] is going to replace that.”
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.