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One year after Planada flood, Merced County approves plan for $20 million in state aid

Christopher Castilo speaks to the Merced County Board of Supervisors during the first meeting in 2024. He advocated for his parents, who lost their house during the Planada Flood.
Christian De Jesus Betancourt
Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
Christopher Castilo speaks to the Merced County Board of Supervisors during the first meeting in 2024. He advocated for his parents, who lost their house during the Planada Flood.

MERCED (CVJC) – One year to the day after a historic flood devastated the small farmworker community of Planada, the Merced County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a spending plan for $20 million in state aid for residents who still are recovering.

The supervisors approved the spending plan Tuesday during their first meeting of 2024.

Residents can expect to receive payments in mid-April after submitting an application and gaining approval, Merced County staff said.

“The story of Planada is one of resiliency. Community members stepped up to help one another to ensure that their neighbors were safe,” said state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Merced, who helped secure the funding. “Though it is impossible to measure this level of loss, or replace it all, it is my hope that residents, especially those who were not qualified for other financial assistance programs, will have the relief that they need.”

The county supervisors acknowledged not everyone would be happy with the spending plan, but their goal was to provide the greatest amount of help to the greatest number of people possible. And county officials are prepared to “pivot” if needed, CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez said.

“It's not perfect, and I'm sure that there's people that walk away from this that aren't as happy as some other people,” Supervisor Scott Silveira said. “But knowing that there's a limited amount of resources, we're doing our best to get them into their hands.This whole thing was kind of designed to be that extra safety net.”

Floodwaters submerged the entire town of Planada overnight last year when a levy on nearby Miles Creek broke open during a powerful storm system. The flood was disastrous for the town of 4,000 residents, of whom more than 80% experienced some sort of loss, according to research and an analysis by UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center. Through its community engagement efforts, Merced County officials identified nearly 850 households that were affected.

Additionally, many residents’ undocumented immigration status made them ineligible for any federal aid, the UC Merced study found. About one-third of Planada residents work in agriculture, and the UC Merced study found about half of Planada properties are occupied by renters.

Through the state budget process, Caballero and Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, D-Fresno, secured $20 million for direct aid for residents, regardless of immigration status.

After Tuesday’s vote, Soria in a statement applauded the supervisors for prioritizing residents’ needs.

“This plan is a direct result of the unwavering advocacy and engagement of Planada residents. Many of those impacted are some of our most vulnerable neighbors, so from the beginning, our goal has been to get them the direct support they need and deserve,” Soria said in a statement. “This is a win for and by the residents of Planada.”

After receiving the money from the state, county staff began hosting workshops in November, collecting feedback from residents about how to spend the money and expectations for the application process. County officials applauded the engagement effort, calling it unprecedented for the agency.

The outstanding needs for Planada residents vary. While many have spent their life’s savings and taken on tens of thousands in debt to repair their homes and replace their belongings, other homes remain stripped down to wood studs and concrete foundations.

Anastacio Rosales, a longtime resident of Planada, addressed the board Tuesday, saying he wanted to wish those present a happy New Year but couldn’t since the past year was not one he remembered fondly.

In an interview with CVJC, Rosales said he plans to apply for some of the aid since he spent nearly $60,000 to repair his home.

Rosales lamented the loss of memorabilia from his time as a musician, including masters and CDs, along with photo albums from his mother. No amount of money could cover the sentimental value of the lifetime of memories lost.

“How am I going to prove to my grandkids that I was a musician?” he said. “...Those are memories that $40,000 or $50,000 are not going to replace.”

Spending plan

Edward Flores, faculty director of UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center, said the center and the county’s work laid the foundation for building similar systems in the future – especially when it comes to immigrant communities and informal economies.

“Climate change isn't going away anytime soon,” he said. “We think that this is a path forward for doing work that's never been done before, but that's critical, and that's going to create a foundation for future emergencies.”

Out of the $20 million, about $13 million will be distributed to residents and business owners. County officials plan to use nearly $7 million for infrastructure, administration and contingencies.

About $8 million will be used for health and safety repairs to homes; $4.6 million will be distributed as direct assistance for household losses, vehicle losses and repairs and for lost wages; and $500,000 will be distributed to businesses affected by the flood.

Residents can use the money for new home repairs or as a reimbursement for completed repairs, county staff said.

The pot of money for direct assistance applies to moving and/or lodging expenses, first month’s rent in a new home, reimbursements for deposits, or past-due payments on utilities, rent or mortgage payments. However, the adopted plan caps direct assistance for housing and personal property at $15,000 per applicant, a detail many residents criticized.

Flores said providing assistance for residents who couldn’t access unemployment insurance is “innovative,” considering few, if any, other systems to do so exist in California.

“We do want to acknowledge that there was a time a generation ago when undocumented workers did have access to wage replacement,” he said. “So here we are trying to find ways to innovate, ways to fill those gaps.

“Planada has a high rate of Latino and undocumented immigrant workers, and so do a lot of other places that are going to be vulnerable to disasters,” he said. “So we had better start figuring out ways to support folks that contribute their labor to our system, pay taxes into our system and depend upon our system.”

County officials plan to spend $3 million for infrastructure improvements to the sewer system, removal of vegetation around Miles Creek and a study and analysis to capture and divert future flood water. Another $2 million will be used for inspections, application processing and staff support, and $1.9 million will be set aside for unexpected costs and available for distribution.

The plan approved on Tuesday differs from the recommendations in the UC Merced study on which the state funding legislation was predicated. That plan recommended spending $11.7 million for home repairs; $1.1 million for vehicle assistance; $5 million for road and facility repairs; $1.8 million for administration of the funding; and $435,000 for tenants who fell behind on rent and utilities; and $86,000 for home inspection.

County staff will begin outreach in Planada in February, with plans to go door-to-door to spread awareness about how to apply for assistance.

The application period is scheduled to begin March 11, and bilingual staff will be available to assist applicants six days a week, including evenings and Saturdays. Officials plan to close the application period on April 20.

Residents could receive checks as early as mid-April. For more information, residents can visit https://planada20m.com/.

'A slap in the face'

As supervisors solicited public comment from Planada residents during the meeting, several spoke up, mostly echoing the sentiment that $15,000 for direct assistance was insufficient, and the March start for applications was too far out.

The board listened but did not validate the feelings of the community, said Alicia Rodriguez, a Planada resident turned advocate. Over the last year, Rodriguez has diligently documented the losses and donations to most Planada households and posts critical information and updates for residents on Facebook.

“There was an opportunity to modify, and none of the supervisors asked to know more or elaborate,” she said.

Two county supervisors, Josh Pedrozo from District 2 and Daron McDaniel from District 3, commented that residents in their districts were also flooded and had not received any aid.

“I want the Planada residents to realize you guys are getting $20 million,” McDaniel said. “I have folks who are in their 80s who are still not in their homes to this day, and they didn't receive anything. Please realize $20 million is a great help for you folks.”

“I think that $20 million in a year is a lot of money,” added Pedrozo. “I think the plan put in place is good.”

Rodriguez said the supervisors’ comments were “very cold. They’re trying to tell us that we should be grateful.”

She said gratitude had nothing to do with the residents’ comments. Rather, they called on the board to use the funding the way it was proposed by researchers, Rodriguez said.

Rosales presented to the supervisors a letter signed by several residents asking for the application period to begin earlier and for updates from the county as the process progressed. Rosales asked for the direct assistance cap to be raised to $25,000 per household.

“Be aware that we want the change because we still have debt and other issues to fix in our households,” he said in Spanish. “Please take note of this letter signed by residents and listen to us. A year has gone by, and that is a long time.”

After the meeting, Rosales said he was allowed to speak but did not feel listened to.

“Aunque no nos guste las decisiones que ellos tomen, de todos modos van a ser lo creen que es mejor – even if we don’t like the decision they make, they’re still going to do what they think is best,” he said in Spanish outside the county building.

“$15,000 is not enough. It’s an insult. It feels like a slap to the face,” he said.

Rodriguez said she would continue to advocate for a better plan because she worries an essential group of residents are in danger of being left behind.

“It's sad because they're gonna go apply, and they're going to be denied,” she said.

Brianna Vaccari is an accountability and watchdog reporter for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom launched in 2021 by the James B. McClatchy Foundation.
Christian De Jesus Betancourt is the bilingual communities reporter for Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.