Jessica Sanchez felt bad about the flood disaster that displaced hundreds of people in this Monterey County farming town.
He felt even worse when he heard families sleeping in their cars because some of the shelters had reached capacity and they couldn’t afford hotels.
“I have two daughters and I can’t imagine having to sleep in the car when it’s cold and raining outside,” said Sanchez, 34. “There’s also the fear of a tree falling on them.”
So Tuesday night, she and her friend Sara Perez, 36, joined a group of volunteers to feed those affected by the flooding that occurred when the Pajaro River burst its banks Friday night.
The two women shared foam containers filled with chicken soup, pan dulce, and cups of atole, a hot Mexican drink, near the Pajaro River bridge in Watsonville, across the water from Pajaro, California.
Sanchez said it was only the second day they had gathered to feed the family after at least 70 people, including children, turned up Monday.
“We ran out of food, and I feel really bad that people are still showing up with their children,” he said.
More than 70 people turned up again Tuesday night. Some drove, others got out of their cars and walked to the food line, and some walked across the bridge from their homes in Pajaro with their children.
The families were mostly those from two-story apartment buildings who refused to be evacuated. The city has electricity and gas but no drinking water. Residents collect rainwater that they can use to flush toilets.
At the bridge, volunteers handed out tacos and hot chocolate through police tape that kept people from trying to get back into the Pajaro. A security guard helps provide water boxes to the family.
An arch bridge over the Pajaro River connects the towns of Watsonville and Pajaro, two communities of varying population sizes and economic power.
Watsonville, located in Santa Cruz County, has a population of nearly 53,000 and a diverse economy including agriculture and manufacturing. Pajaro is filled with mom-and-pop shops and has about 3,000 residents, mostly farm workers.
Even though they are in different counties, they share the same Postal Code. For people like Perez, they are entwined through farm work.
“Even though they live on the other side of the river, they are our colleagues, friends and co-workers,” he said. “Another sad thing about all of this is that a few of us worked picking strawberries back then and now, there’s no job for anyone.”
Sanchez said he was worried about paying $1,600 in rent and bills due next month. Perez said he paid $1,200 for a studio apartment and also had no idea how he would pay the rent.
The women said the floods had injured farm workers on both sides of the river, many of whom had hoped to start work this week.
Sanchez and Perez said they were disappointed that Santa Cruz and Monterey counties were not doing more to help the families. Some of the flooded residents spoke the native language and could not communicate well in Spanish.
“I know a woman at the shelter who wanted a blanket for her grandson, but she didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Spanish very well,” Sanchez said. “I have a friend who can help translate for him.”
Officers had yet to distribute clothes to people who had to leave in the middle of the night without picking up their belongings, the women said.
“Some people have been wearing the same clothes for days; they have no money and can’t afford to go to a hotel,” Sanchez said.
He said the volunteers had used their own money to help some of the people displaced by the floods. One volunteer spends about $200 on food alone; others use the money to distribute toiletries and socks.
Juan Ruiz, 42, another volunteer, said it was important to help.
“Sometimes you feel powerless for wanting to do more, but we can only help if we can,” he said.
While sipping his chicken soup, refugee resident Heriberto Garcia, 66 years old, said he was grateful that there were residents who distributed basic necessities. He couldn’t understand why the county didn’t send workers to residents instead of having people go to them.
After the Pajaro flood in 1995, killing two people and causing up to $95 million in economic damage, Garcia said he was hired to help pump water out of submerged fields.
He said he hoped something similar would happen soon, as he didn’t have the money for next month’s $2,200 rent.
Nearby, Jose Aguirre, 45, eats a plate of chips.
“I am very grateful to everyone here for bringing food while we wait to return to our homes,” he said. “It helps us save a bit.”
Aguirre, a farmhand, said he couldn’t find space at the shelter and had to rent a hotel room. Paying $103 a day for a room that he and his wife share with their 15-year-old daughter, he has enough money to live for three days, he said. Though he wasn’t sure what he would do next.
“We don’t have jobs,” he said. “We all need help, some more than others.”
He took a chip from his plate and looked outside as people continued to flock to the bridge in search of a hot meal and a break from the flood.