By CHRISTIAN DE JESUS BETANCOURT
One year ago, longtime Planada resident Fabiola Cervantes watched as rising flood waters overtook her childhood home.
Working remotely on what she thought would be an average day, the 53-year-old Planada native initially noticed water pooling outside her residence. But as the rains continued, the situation rapidly deteriorated.
“I poked open the door and saw a stream of water coming around the house,” Cervantes told CVJC. “I had a bad feeling something had happened. My mother (who lived nearby) was outside looking at the rain coming down and wondering what all that water was doing in front of her house.”
Trying to find out what was happening, Cervantes turned on her radio and checked the internet but found no news.
“(The water) just kept growing, and it kept growing and growing, and nobody said anything,” she said. “The water was just coming so rapidly … it was already up to my ankles. It came to the point where my mom couldn’t even cross over to my house.”
Cervantes, who eventually escaped to safety, lives in one of the more than 850 households affected on Jan. 9, 2023, when floodwaters breached the banks of nearby Miles Creek, submerging the unincorporated community during a powerful atmospheric river storm system.
The flood was catastrophic for the town of 4,000 residents. Around 80% of Planada’s population was impacted and suffered some level of property damage, according to research and an analysis by UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center. Fortunately, no lives were lost.
Fast forward to 2024, and after a year relief does appear to be on the way for folks impacted by the flood in Planada. On Jan. 9 – the exact one-year anniversary of the flood – the Merced County Board of Supervisors approved a spending plan for $20 million in recovery funds for victims of the Planada flood.
Officials say residents who have their applications approved can expect to receive payments as soon as mid-April.
While many residents anticipate the aid, many say the flood’s impacts linger. Above all, they hope what happened there will not be forgotten.
“We still don’t feel normal,” Cervantes said. “I’ve developed bronchitis four times this year. We’ve all been getting sick. I have anxiety. I can’t sleep. People are bitter. People are sad. They’re waiting to receive at least a little bit of help.”
Starting from zero
The stories of residents who live with damages or have cleared their savings to fix a home could fill the pages of many books. Walking the streets of Planada, one doesn’t have to look far to find them.
For example, Ray Sardina lives in a house with half the inside walls now gone, no sink to wash his dishes, and a dark bathroom with a tarp covering his shower.
Another longtime Planada resident, Anastacio Rosales, has lived in the same house for 58 years. He has a cherished annual tradition of spending the holidays in his birth town of Zitácuaro, Michoacan, in Mexico.
He was there when the flood wreaked havoc on his home. Rosales learned of the devastation the next day from his older sister, who lives in the nearby town of Le Grand.
“Me hablo y me dijo que todo estaba inundado, y nadia podia entrar ni salir de Planada – she called me and told me that everything was flooded and no one could come in or out of Planada,” Rosales said in Spanish.
Rosales was able to fly back to California more than two weeks after learning his home was flooded. His only source of information was a niece who gave him daily updates.
“There were 3 feet of water inside my house,” he said. “It was a disaster. Everything was destroyed. My backyard looked like a landfill. I started crying. I lost everything. I had to start from zero.”
Rosales thus far has spent upwards of $65,000 to fix his house. The money spent does not weigh as heavy on him as do decades of lost memories.
“What about my records?” he asked about his lost collection. “How much is it going to cost me to replace a Michael Jackson or an Elvis Presley album? I had a Marilyn Monroe photo. I had all these posters. I lost all that.”
January has been a hard month for Rosales ever since he lost his mother and brother in the same month eight years ago.
“Now, with this … my life has changed a lot,” he said. “Even though I’m still in the house, it’s not the same. Now, with all these memories that I lost of my parents and my brother – it’s a lot of loss.”
Picking up the pieces
Getting resources and familiar institutions back on track has taken time and money. For example, the elementary school suffered more than $12 million in damage and was closed for three months. Those students temporarily gathered at the middle school to continue their education.
The community center, a staple of the area, was closed until August last year. The local post office remains closed to this day. Planada residents pick up their mail a few miles away at the Bell Station Post Office in Merced.
After the storm had passed last year, Cervantes returned to her home to find houses and cars underwater. Her mission was to rescue her dogs, who were left behind.
She was stopped less than a block away by divers in the area who, after some convincing, agreed to drive to her home and check on the pups.
The usual one-minute drive home, augmented by dark and muddy waters, took almost 10 minutes. The family pets “were still in their kennels on top of the cabinets,” said Cervantes. “The divers went in and got them out.”
With her four-legged family members in tow, Cervantes returned to a hotel until the next day when the water had subsided enough that people were allowed to return to their homes.
The community was unrecognizable. “We came back to mud; you couldn’t see the streets,” she said. “We had to use our instincts (to get home).”
The home of Cervantes’ mother, Maria Soto, 74, was full of mud, and the scent of sewage inundated the atmosphere. “When my mother went inside her house, she just broke down,” she said. “She went into a panic mode because there was nothing left of her house. We had to tear down the walls because of the mold.”
Stories of hope emerge
Although many of the memories Planada residents have from last year’s storm are of desperation, there are also recollections of people coming together to help their fellow neighbors.
After seeing their ruined homes and hoping for a change of scenery, Cervantes and her mother walked to Houlihan Park and stood in the parking lot of the Planada Community Center, embracing each other.
“The waters took away pictures,” she said. “All these mementos, all that was in dumpsters. Everything they had saved from their babies and their loved ones was all gone in that water.”
However, Cervantes recalled how amid the devastation, people from all over California came to help.
A makeshift relief center was set up in the park. “They were coming out dropping off things,” said Cervantes. “They came out to provide warm meals for weeks and weeks. They just had so much to give, so much love.”
For the next three months, people continued to drop off things that were distributed to the residents.
Alicia Rodriguez, 58, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Planada Sacred Heart Conference, has played an active role in helping out flood victims from the day the flood hit until now.
As the rains progressed and the floodwaters moved in, Rodriguez posted on social media, informing residents about the dangers and how to access resources.
In the flood’s aftermath, she was part of the team helping at the community center, in addition to doing home visits with victims.
As the home visits progressed, Rodriguez noticed that most elderly residents wouldn’t leave their homes to seek help. Many of those folks were unable to stand in the park’s long lines, waiting for resources.
She came across a vacant property in the heart of Planada at 9393 Broadway. Aided by the property owner’s support, the house was used rent-free for volunteers to drop things off, giving birth to what became known as ‘Broadway Giver’s Place.’
This place was indoor and more private, something Rodriguez said helped people maintain their dignity while getting the help they needed.
“We don’t take away their pride by making them wait in long lines,” she said. “They had privacy. They knew each other; they were neighbors. There were no strangers involved. It was a place where people felt good.”
A new reality with no guarantees
In addition to the massive property damage, the flood disrupted the daily lives and work schedules of the people in Planada.
About one-third of Planada residents work in agriculture and rent their homes. The immigration status of many of them made them ineligible for aid – 57% of those with job loss were ineligible for unemployment benefits, and 64% of households with flood-damaged property did not qualify for federal disaster aid, the UC Merced study found.
Many of those workers’ employment was also impacted due to the flood’s impact on crops.
“There was hardly any work,” Rodriguez said. “They were already in the red. I was going to their homes and hearing their stories. Men were crying. Women were the strong ones. They were the ones holding the homes up. The children were scared of rain.”
Planada lies in an area designated to be at severe risk of flooding, with 999 out of 1,003 homes at extreme risk. Of their roads, 19 out of 26 are at a major risk.
“These are farm workers,” said District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, whose area includes Planada on the Merced County Board of Supervisors. “A lot of them are undocumented. It’s a poor community. They don’t have a lot of services.”
Problems with overgrown vegetation and trash on the creeks were well known by residents. Espinosa said he tried to organize clean-up throughout the county but faced resistance from government organizations.
“The impediment was that the state and other organizations were very difficult in giving us the permission necessary to clean up the creeks,” he said.
Some have speculated the state of the creeks played a part in the flood. Several lawsuits against government agencies have been filed for alleged negligence, but thus far, none of those cases have been resolved.
Amid the bureaucratic headaches and pending litigation, some residents have said home insurance companies in the area refused to pay out any benefits.
“All that money that we’ve been paying flood insurance, all that money is going to waste,” Cervantes said. “It didn’t help us.:
Language barriers and cultural differences prevented some residents from getting the help they needed.
Census data shows 30.1% poverty in the Planada area, with a median household income of about $44,000. The median age for the 96% Hispanic community is 34 years old.
A small percentage of those affected in Planada were able to access federal disaster aid or unemployment benefits.
“With FEMA, a lot of things were denied,” said Local Leadership Counsel Policy Advocate Zaray Ramirez. “Those undocumented (residents) were not qualified. The amount of money allocated was insufficient to cover the full remediation of the home.”
Now, many Planada residents are awaiting help from the $20 million in state flood relief aid, approved by the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 9 this year. Applications for the process are set to begin in March.
The county’s plan, as proposed, will use $13 million to distribute to residents and business owners and nearly $7 million for infrastructure, administration and contingencies.
The adopted plan caps direct assistance for housing and personal property at $15,000 per applicant – a detail many residents criticized.
Other objections to the plan were the amount of money used for infrastructure and the distribution timeline.
“We don’t want to go through a whole other year of just waiting for the funds to be funneled through,” said Ramirez. “Also, we want to make sure that the plan is properly drafted and implemented with equity.”
Despite the heartache that continues in Planada, residents such as Cervantes said the disaster has prompted many to become more involved in local government affairs and their community.
Cervantes says she has become more outspoken after the flood, especially when getting things for those who need it most.
“I’ve never been as vocal as I am now,” she said. “I will ask for things that we need out here. Even our Spanish-speaking residents have been more vocal.”
Articulating those needs, especially after talking directly to those affected, is what Cervantes said helped them get through.
“I think for a lot of families it’s going to take years for people to start feeling 100%,” she said. “People lost a lot of memories … We don’t feel whole. We don’t feel like we’re complete yet. I hear that over and over again.”
Christian De Jesus Betancourt is the bilingual communities reporter The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering Merced. The Merced FOCUS is part of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative