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California storms are taking a toll on farmworkers like those in the town of Pajaro


California is finally seeing a break from the rain. That is giving people time to take stock of the damage in flooded areas, areas including the town of Pajaro in the state's central coast. A levee broke there last weekend and forced thousands of residents, many of them farm workers, to evacuate. Farida Jhabvala Romero from member station KQED went there yesterday. And, Farida, what did you see?

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: The first thing is that the water has receded a lot in the main parts of town. And so I was able to drive through Main Street, which was impossible just a couple of days ago, when everything was underwater. And you could really tell the water mark about two to three feet up on building walls. You could tell the damage is going to be really extensive. I saw a beauty salon, for example, that was missing part of its front wall. There were cars still partly submerged in parking lots. And obviously, everything is closed right now. And nobody's allowed to move back in yet.

KELLY: Right. Well, I was going to ask - you've been telling me what it looks like. What about what people are saying, the people who live there? How are they doing?

JHABVALA ROMERO: Yeah. Well, this is a really low-income community, mostly Latino. Many people in the town of Pajaro are farmworkers in fields nearby and in the region. Many are undocumented. They don't have an economic safety net. They're not eligible for unemployment insurance. And they wouldn't qualify for FEMA funds either.

KELLY: Yeah.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Since they evacuated last week, they've been living in shelters set up by the county or with relatives nearby. We've even heard of people sleeping in cars with their kids. And, you know, these are people who had really little before the flooding. They expected to start working this month harvesting strawberries, which is the top crop in Monterey County. But some fields are now lakes. They just look like lakes. So they don't know when they'll be able to work again. I spoke with Juana Juarez. She's a single mom of three.

JUANA JUAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

JHABVALA ROMERO: So she's saying that she was left with nothing. She's worried about feeding her kids and how she'll pay for rent with no work.

KELLY: Tell me more, Farida, about what kind of help is coming in.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Well, there are two kinds of responses, right? One is by officials in the county trying to deal with the emergency itself. They've patched up the levee that broke, set up shelters and other types of aid for residents. But I also saw community members, other farm workers that are stepping up to help, too. They've been raising donations. They've been dropping bags of clothes because a lot of people fled with just what they were wearing. They're cooking meals and buying pizzas and cookies, you know, even though they're in the same situation of not knowing when they'll get to work.

KELLY: Yeah, that feeling of not knowing so many things. Is there any sense...


KELLY: ...Of the timeline just on when some of these displaced people will be able to go home?

JHABVALA ROMERO: Well, we're hearing it could be several weeks or even longer. The Monterey County sheriff says there's a bunch of steps the county needs to take before they let people in safely back into their homes, like making sure that the infrastructure is safe - buildings, drinking water, checking for environmental hazards. Governor Gavin Newsom toured the damage yesterday. He committed to helping these communities in their recovery. But the damage is going to be really expensive, and they're still assessing the extent of it. Agriculture is huge here, a $4 billion industry. And, you know, the losses are expected to be huge.

KELLY: That is Farida Jhabvala Romero from our member station KQED. Farida, thank you.

JHABVALA ROMERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Farida Jhabvala Romero