In Pajaro, children and teens grapple with displacement after flooding

Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — The school buses arrived in quick succession, looping past the entrance of the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds and a parking lot packed with cars before stopping near Harvest Building, a low-slung yellow structure usually used for fundraisers.

Araceli Telles stood waiting near the gate for her daughters to arrive at the sprawling complex. The family had recently landed in an emergency shelter here, less than a week after fleeing their home in Pajaro in the morning darkness when a levee broke and unleashed a flood.

Her daughters had been scared the first few days after the March 10 deluge, she said, unsure and unsettled by the abrupt displacement and constant moves. They spent one night in a hotel, another sleeping in a friend's kitchen. But with buses at the shelter serving their schools, her children were, at last, back to a semi-normal routine.

Still, she worried about their health. Telles had received a call from her 7-year-old's teacher saying Mitzy wasn't her usual cheery self.

"Even though people say children don't understand, they do," Telles said in Spanish. "If I feel badly, my older daughter feels badly, even though things feel more calm. But now there are people saying it's going to last a long time, maybe one or two months. And then we're going to feel worse when we go back."

Families and children are still grappling with the sudden and devastating losses of their homes in Pajaro, a low-income farmworking community with a significant Indigenous population in unincorporated Monterey County. The Pajaro River separates the small community from the larger city of Watsonville in the Pajaro Valley. Displaced residents who have lost their homes also worry how they will pay their bills after many of the expansive agricultural fields surrounding the town also flooded.


The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, which serves students in Pajaro and Watsonville, saw a drop in attendance rates as students were displaced. While some have been living out of family cars or have moved out of the area to stay with relatives, several ended up at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where bus service began pickups and drop-offs after the district resumed classes March 15.

The district has added bus stops to try to accommodate requests from families and get students back to the classroom, Pajaro Valley Unified Supt. Michelle Rodriguez said, but it hasn't been easy.

"They really scattered, and now they're trying to come back," Rodriguez said. "Little by little, we'll get the ones that are not here currently and we'll let them know we're ready for them."

At least 1,600 children and teens had attended three schools that served the Pajaro Valley Unified area and were directly affected by road closures and flooding. But the number of students deeply affected by the disaster is likely higher because many students who live in Pajaro cross the bridge to attend school in Santa Cruz County.


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