For those struggling on the frontlines of natural disaster, the arrival of the nation’s president should mean that everything is going to be alright. But following President Joe Biden’s visit to the county on Jan. 19, few were left with an improved sense of support or security as they grapple with the reverberations of January’s storms.
Biden has promised the deployment of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel and services, but residents of Santa Cruz County know not to expect a rapid or generous rollout of these provisions. Two years removed from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, there remains nearly $70 million in unreimbursed FEMA costs.
This backlog of payments isn’t the only thing that undermines Biden’s promises — there is also the question of eligibility to be considered for FEMA aid.
In order to apply for aid, individuals are required to present legal documentation of residence, citizenship, or employment. According to the 2020 Santa Cruz census, there are an estimated 19,500 undocumented individuals in Santa Cruz. In February 2022, 2,300 individuals across Santa Cruz county were experiencing houselessness, with 77 percent lacking shelter.
For undocumented farmworkers in Watsonville who have been driven out of their homes and their work by flooding, government aid may never arrive. Santa Cruz’s unhoused population is also rendered invisible under FEMA guidelines. Without property or employment to produce a claim, and already unsupported by local governance, they remain well outside the realm of state protection.
While promises of topographic development are extremely important, delays in implementation and minimal investment make for an impotent solution to a crisis worsening at a breakneck pace.
The Pajaro Valley River levees were in poor condition before the storm, with funding for construction being celebrated earlier in 2022. Yet construction wasn’t set to begin until 2025.
Important preventative measures like reinforced levees, underground power lines, and seawalls remain half-baked under current state and local administration. We know that we are not far from another extreme weather event, and unpreparedness is violently negligent.
In the midst of all of these promises, there is a shortage of integrity. There is a lack of urgency, a failure to deliver, and an unwillingness on the part of leaders like Biden to implicate themselves in the precarious position we find ourselves, both locally and environmentally.
Until infrastructural projects are actually executed and protective; until aid is generous, rapid and inclusive, and until there is serious crackdown on agitants of the climate crisis, the only guarantee of effective and immediate support comes through the work being done within our communities.
While Biden did his flyover and received ample media attention for his brief visit, praise has been withheld from community groups working on the ground. They have helped applicants for FEMA aid in navigating bureaucracy, provided food and housing to those displaced, and led the charge in sorting through the wreckage. These are the unphotographed – the most reliable supporters of our community.