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FEMA relief has arrived, but not everyone in Pajaro will qualify

Jerimiah Oetting
Ben Matlock sweeps the street outside his home in Pajaro, near a pile of broken appliances and other items that were damaged in the flood. For flood victims who qualify, FEMA will provide reimbursements for appliances, vehicles and other important belongings.

Nearly a month after thousands of residents fled flooding in the town of Pajaro, President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration that has enabled the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide financial relief to victims of the disaster.

But not everyone in Pajaro, a small agricultural town that is largely hispanic, will have access to the money.

The community is home to many migrants, some of whom are in the country illegally, or do not possess the proper documentation to apply for federal assistance. Some residents have also lost important papers and identification in the flood.

“They have jobs here, they’ve been habituated to this area and are contributing to the local economy,” said Rodrigo Navarro, the consul for protection and legal affairs at the Mexican consulate in San Jose, CA. “They are part of this social environment.”

Navarro says the Mexican consulate is working to get documentation to residents who have arrived in the country legally. He says accessing federal resources for those who lack legal status is “going to be complicated. But, he says it is imperative they receive some relief.

“We are working with local community organizations” to ensure everyone has access to some relief, he said. “We see that people are really worried about how they will be able to get back to their ordinary lives.”

Rodrigo Navarro of the Mexican consulate.
Jerimiah Oetting
Rodrigo Navarro of the Mexican consulate.

Many local organizations have helped support Pajaro since the beginning of the crisis. They’re able to fill the gap in federal assistance that doesn’t reach some of the most vulnerable residents.

“(The nonprofits) sometimes are the only option,” said Laurel Lee-Alexander, the vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation for Monterey County. “FEMA is wonderful and it’s great, but the nonprofits work with people who know them.”

The Community Foundation doesn’t provide direct relief to individuals, but Lee-Alexander said the organization has already awarded nearly $700,000 in grants to dozens of local nonprofits in the region. Those grantees work on the ground in Pajaro and can provide direct relief to residents regardless of immigration status.

With so many organizations, Lee-Alexander says it can be hard to direct people to the right place. She recommends calling 2-1-1, a hotline managed by United Way, which can help people find the help they need.

Even with the community resources available, residents were already lining up for face time with FEMA representatives on Thursday.

One of those residents was Maria Solorio, a farmworker who has lived in the Pajaro Valley for decades. Though the floodwaters have receded, her family still can’t return to the mobile home they rent because of flood damage. They also lost two vehicles and many of their personal belongings.

Speaking through an interpreter, she said she hopes to recoup some of her losses with money from FEMA. She’s worried that, because the agricultural fields were damaged, she won’t have a job this season, which might force her family to leave their home.

“The most troubling is that her son’s school is in Pajaro. Their whole life is here,” said the interpreter, an on-site security guard named Matthew Correa who offered to translate. “They will try to do everything they can to survive.”

Solorio also expressed frustration that it has taken so long for federal assistance to arrive. When more affluent areas like Capitola and Aptos were damaged in January, she said, the help came almost immediately.

Governor Gavin Newsom did visit Pajaro soon after the floods. During that trip, he touted financial relief for farmworkers like Solorio — $600 checks that he said were already available.

Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in Pajaro, CA on Wednesday.
Jerimiah Oetting
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference on March 15th in Pajaro, CA

“There's not a state in America, not one state, no other state that does more for farmworkers than the state of California,” Newsom said during his tour. “I want folks to know… it's important to reinforce today, March 15th, the United Way was able to get $42 million from USDA, and they're starting to send out $600 checks for farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status,” he said.

But as KAZU News has reported, the $42 million was committed to COVID-19 relief in October 2022, and was not meant to help flood victims.

Since that broken promise, there has been no direct financial help from the federal or state government until this week.

“(Residents of Pajaro) are very frustrated,” translated Correa, summarizing Solorio’s thoughts. “But she said they’re happy now they’re here.”

The relief provided by FEMA is for reimbursements, not future expenses. So flood victims need to prove they’ve already had financial impacts from the flood. Repairing a home or paying for hotel stays during an evacuation falls under the “households” category. Damage to personal property like clothes, appliances and vehicles, falls under the category of “other needs assistance.”

Residents can receive up to $41,000 for each of the two categories.

Pajaro residents wait in line on Thursday to speak with FEMA representatives. To receive federal aid, flood victims will have to verify their expenses and insurance coverage, and provide documentation that someone in their household is in the country legally.
Jerimiah Oetting
Pajaro residents wait in line on Thursday to speak with FEMA representatives. To receive federal aid, flood victims will have to provide documentation that someone in their household is in the country legally.

Tiana Suber, a FEMA spokesperson, said people seeking relief first need to file a claim with their insurance agency.

“FEMA does not duplicate insurance,” Suber said. “But if you are uninsured or you’re not sure about your situation, please come and we will help you through the process.”

The major disaster declaration that Biden signed includes many counties across the state, where flooding may continue for weeks to come. Because the disaster is still open-ended, Suber said there is not a deadline to apply yet.

“There’s quite a bit of time. Don’t take all the time in the world, but make sure you get that process started,” she said. “Don’t leave any resources on the table.”

While proof of legal status in the U.S. is required for FEMA relief, Suber said only one member of the household needs that documentation.

“This is per household, not per individual,” she said. “If you have somebody in your home that is a U.S. Citizen, even if they are a minor, you can use that person to apply.”

She said that will enable the entire household to receive benefits.

Flood victims can fill out an application at, or call 1-800-621-3362. They can also show up at the recovery center in-person, where there are translators to help them wade through the paperwork.

The FEMA disaster recovery center is located at 250 Main St. in Watsonville. It’s open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. but will be closed on Easter Sunday.

Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.