Drive deep into Watsonville on a road off CA Route 129, turn right and you will find a nursery that welcomes you with this sign:
Blue and Green Nursery – Watsonville, CA: Open to the public everyday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunup to sundown, the nursery workers normally spend the hours of operation assisting customers and tending to the nursery’s plant collection. But following the slew of atmospheric rivers that ripped through Santa Cruz County late last December and early this January, most of the labor during these rainless days has shifted to cleanup and repair.
Time is now spent cleaning out displaced dirt that rolled down the hill onto their plants and repairing torn greenhouse roofs, battered by the heavy winds.
One of the owners of the nursery, who goes by Amancio, walked through the muddy landscape and pointed at the areas undergoing reconstruction. Some of the semi-opaque white tarps covering the greenhouses had been patched up, while others remained tattered. Deeper into the nursery, the roof and the wall of a shed were missing.
There is much more work to be done.
Amancio and the workers at Blue and Green Nursery have been working every day, and are expected to work at least three more months to clean up everything that has been damaged by the storm. Amancio described the work as a labor of love and investment, but it has cost him almost $30,000 out of his own pocket.
“Estamos limpiando y poniendo más diario,” dijo Amancio. “No estamos vendiendo, simplemente estamos limpiando y reparando. Entonces, lo que estamos haciendo es invertir de lo que tenemos ahorrado, invertir en el mismo trabajo para seguir trabajando.”
“We are cleaning up and replanting daily,” Amancio said. “We are not selling, simply cleaning and repairing. So, right now what we are doing is investing in what we have saved, investing in the work itself to keep working.”
The first atmospheric river to hit California was only a taste of the onslaught of storm activity ahead. What followed was three weeks of torrential downpour, heavy winds, and unprecedented flash flooding. All of this resulted in damages estimated to cost over $30 billion for the state.
For Amancio, the repairs, construction, and losses have amounted to between $25,000 and $30,000 out of his own pocket.
Federal aid is available to those who have had to rebuild through Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants. However, the lengthy process includes documenting what was damaged during the storm, submitting a claim, and waiting for the claim to be processed to receive reimbursements for business losses and repair costs.
An additional caveat is that FEMA grants are only available to U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals, and those under “qualified alien status.”
FEMA defines a Non-Citizen National “as a person born in an outlying possession of the U.S. (e.g., American Samoa or Swain’s Island) on or after the date the U.S. acquired the possession, or a person whose parents are U.S. non-citizen nationals. All U.S. citizens are U.S. nationals; however, not every U.S. national is a U.S. citizen.”
FEMA defines a Qualified Alien Status “as anyone with legal permanent residence (“green card”), refugee or asylum status, withholding of deportation, conditional entry, parole into the U.S. for at least 1 year for humanitarian purposes; is a Cuban-Haitian Entrant; or has a pending or approved petition for relief based on battery or extreme cruelty by a family member.”
As the frequency of extreme weather events increases, the most vulnerable populations, like those who are undocumented and houseless, remain excluded from important recovery aid.
Farmworkers in California are responsible for over a third of the U.S.’ vegetables, and 75 percent of the country’s fruits and nuts. These contributions to the economy are not returned in times of need, as about 50 percent of the nation’s farmworker population is undocumented, leaving many ineligible for federal aid.
Undocumented residents who have immediate family members with U.S. citizenship can apply for aid as a co- applicant. Often, this means filing through their U.S.-born children who do have legal status. But, even with eligibility, many choose not to apply.
Daniel ‘Nane’ Alejandrez, the founder and executive director of Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos (SCBU), works directly with undocumented members of the Latine community in Santa Cruz County.
“The people who are undocumented that were affected, they can’t apply for the aid,” said Alejandrez. “Those of them who can apply may not want to because they are afraid of being reported.”
Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos is a community group founded in 1977 to provide services to Santa Cruz’s most underrepresented communities. They aim to build peace and end interpersonal, community, and structural violence within BIPOC communities.
Another struggle for those who may qualify for aid is that the availability of these grants is not widely known. With language being a major barrier, many farmers and ranch workers are either unaware of the aid or unsure how and if they can apply for assistance.
Amancio did not know that aid was available to him when asked about it.
“Sería bueno también si nos dieran alguna ayuda,” dijo Amancio. “Pues así con eso también podríamos hacer otras cosas más. Por ejemplo, [podríamos] poner algunos drenajes más grandes para los efectos de tormentas en el futuro.”
“It would be good if they gave us some help,” Amancio said. “With that we could do more. For example, [we could] add bigger drains for the effects of future storms.”
Amancio, co-owner of Blue and Green Nursery, talks about how he and his workers have been rebuilding and cleaning up daily following the series of atmospheric rivers that ravaged Santa Cruz late last December and early January. He expects that cleanup will last at least another three months.
Guadalupe, who is from Watsonville, owns and operates two pieces of land in Gilroy, CA at Tu Universo Farm. During the storm, the lower crops were completely flooded.
“Todavía, aun no podemos entrar a nuestra granja.”
“We still can’t enter our farm,” said Guadalupe.
This interview occurred a month and a half after the flooding. She continued, saying that going by foot or car was not an option. The only way in is by using a tractor, but even that is tough.
Despite the amount of time that has passed since the floods, she said repair and reconstruction are still out of the question. When asked about the potential of applying for aid, she said she didn’t know if they qualified.
“No, para nosotros creo que no,” dijo Guadalupe. “Vamos a esperar si aprueban algo en el condado de Santa Clara. Si aprueban algo puede ser que nos ayuden pero no va ser que nos ayuden, si no que va ser un préstamo y ese préstamo nosotros lo tenemos que regresar. Pues no tiene caso. Pero, pues, ni modo.”
“No, for us I don’t think so,” Guadalupe said. “We’re going to wait to see if they approve something in Santa Clara County. If they do, they might help us, but it won’t actually help; it will only be a loan and that loan we have to pay back, so there’s no point. But, well, whatever.”
The Small Business Administration is allowing certain businesses to apply for loans up to $2 million to cover losses. They are less appealing than FEMA grants, in which businesses would be reimbursed for the amounts they claim.
So far, President Joe Biden has only granted Santa Cruz County the ability to apply for FEMA grants. FEMA representatives have said more counties will be added to that list once assessments are complete.
That means Tu Universo Farm may not even have access to federal aid because Gilroy is in Santa Clara County. Even if they did have access, it would only be a loan. Santa Cruz County still has almost $70 million of unreimbursed FEMA costs from the CZU Lightning Complex and COVID-19 pandemic.
Local community groups such as Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos (SCBU) are working to alleviate the pressure on the farmworker and ranch worker population following the storms, focusing their aid on the affected Latine community.
“I think people in the community need to research what groups are doing what, and how they are getting resources to the people affected and donate to them,” Alejandrez said. “If we [SCBU] can’t help them, we will direct them to someone who can.”
With that being said, local aid groups can only do so much. Raking in over $76 million in damages, Santa Cruz County will likely still need a lot of assistance. And people in Santa Clara County can only wait patiently for FEMA to finish with their assessments to see if the county can even qualify for aid.
Though the heavy rainfall did affect Blue and Green Nursery, Amancio said the wind was the bigger contributor to the damage, tearing the roods and walls off their greenhouses. He went on to say that the staff have found something new to clean up every day. Photo by Daniella Fajardo.
Until that can be provided, landowners like Amancio will need to keep saving and investing their own money into the cleanup every day for the months to come. Meanwhile, landowners like Guadalupe may not even get a chance to start cleanup efforts until the water levels subside on their land.
“No hemos tenido ayuda de nadie,” dijo Amancio. “Hasta que la recibimos, tenemos que ir quitando esa tierra, limpiarla, y otra vez a volver a poner y lo vamos haciendo diario, poco a poco.”
“We have not gotten help from anyone,” said Amancio. “Until we do, we have to be removing the dirt, cleaning, and putting in new dirt. We are doing it daily, little by little.”
Daniella Fajardo and Gwenyth Rodriguez contributed additional reporting.