Planada residents get a first look at how $20 million flood relief package might be spent
The plan could be before the Board of Supervisors by January. But the process is far from over
By CHRISTIAN DE JESUS BETANCOURT
PLANADA, Calif. — After several meetings and months of waiting, Planada residents received a better look Tuesday evening at what $20 million in flood relief might look like for the community.
At a Cesar Chavez Middle School workshop, about 80 residents were presented with a possible plan and timeline for spending the state money.
County officials, who accepted the funds in October, welcomed the residents to the gathering with tamales, pan dulce, and Champurrado.
Erick Serrato, executive director of Merced County Dept of Workforce Investment, presented the preliminary draft of the plan in Spanish and English with Lupe Cisneros, Merced County Department of Public Health compliance manager.
Based on feedback from residents and others, a new iteration of the plan could be available by Dec. 14. The plan could be placed on the Board of Supervisors agenda by January.
“This is not a final plan, and no money has been spent,” Serrato reiterated to the audience, who quietly listened to the presentation for most of the meeting.
Key components of the plan
Under the proposed draft of the plan, residents applying for relief need to file only a single application to receive funds for home repairs, direct assistance, housing assistance, vehicle assistance, personal property replacement, and business support.
Financial aid could start in April, and households within directly water-impacted areas would be given first priority. Second priority would be given to flood-damaged vehicles, followed by households in non-water-impacted areas.
The proposed budget is broken down by allocating $8 million to home repairs, $4 million in direct assistance, $3 million for infrastructure, $2.5 million for other considerations, $500.000 for business support and $2 million for administrative and inspection costs.
Some whispers and sounds of displeasure were heard among the audience when the plan touched upon using $3 million for infrastructure. That could include an analysis of the area to capture and divert future flood waters, exploring finding a new site for the Planada Post Office, improving the sewer systems and removing vegetation on Miles Creek.
After seeing the proposal, Saul Calderon, a resident of Planada who made the community his home after retiring from the Bay Area, told CVJC he believes the county should be responsible for the infrastructure adjustments in the area and the $20 million should be used to aid the residents directly.
“Twenty million, if given to the community, could be enough,” he said in Spanish. “Now they’re talking about using some of the money to fix things they should have addressed before the flooding happened.”
Ildefonso Nava, principal of Planada Middle School, said the meeting was one of the more fruitful the county has held, particularly because its main points were explained with additional information.
“I'm hoping the next ones are better,” he said. “They also receive all the slides in hardcopy so people can take them home. Giving people the opportunity to go to these points really helps because not everybody has the same needs.”
Madeline Harris, a regional policy manager at the Leadership Counsel for Accountability and Justice in Merced County, took extensive notes during the meeting. She said her organization will do community outreach with Planada residents to get plan feedback and advocate with the county on their behalf.
“One of the main things that I have been hearing from folks is that it's almost going to be a year since the flood happened, and a lot of people are still waiting on this aid,” Harris said.
The $20 million in aid for residents, regardless of immigration status, was secured through the state budget process, with several community workshops helping to determine how the funds will be used for Planada.
The unincorporated community of about 4,000 residents, most of whom speak Spanish, was affected by a devastating flood after Miles Creek, which runs from the southeast part of the town, was breached in January when days of heavy rain hit Merced County.
More than 80% of the homes in the community suffered losses, according to UC Merced researchers. About half of Planada residents are renters, while a third of the community’s labor force works in agriculture, according to U.S. Census estimates.
An issue that prevented many of the residents from receiving federal relief was their immigration status. Another hurdle for unemployment help was the informality of cash jobs that many area residents have.
Merced County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez said during a previous meeting some restraints come with the funding. For example, aid received by residents through other means – like FEMA, state, or nonprofit organizations – cannot be duplicated by the $20 million in state funds.
There is no current limit of benefits for most aid, except for business support, which was proposed to be capped at $20,000 per business.
Christian De Jesus Betancourt is the bilingual communities reporter for Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.