By: Lubna Mohammad July, 2023
The floods of early 2023 hit Monterey County and its farmworker communities particularly hard. Evacuations, lost paychecks, destroyed homes- these kinds of things are especially difficult to recover from if you don’t speak English, don’t have U.S. citizenship, don’t have a safety net of family or friends to fall back on.
One group that was there early on to help some of the flood victims during the recovery process was CERV, the Community Emergency Response Volunteers. Because CERV has been a part of the statewide Listos California campaign since its inception in 2019, it had already established close partner relationships with two grassroots community-based organizations who work regularly with many of the groups who were hardest hit: Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect. This connection enabled these three organizations to move quickly to provide help in the crucial early days of the recovery cycle.
The 2023 storms in Monterey County toppled trees, created flooding and power outages, impacted water systems, and caused the Pajaro River levee to breach. Thousands of people had to evacuate their homes, with hundreds of homes damaged and many left without power and clean water. The emotional and financial strain of the evacuations was compounded by the ongoing burden of figuring out how to repair damages, clean mold, replace food, clothing, and medicine, catch children up in school, and try to recover lost wages, while bracing for the looming potential of more storms.
The economic blow of the storms to Monterey County included over 20,000 acres of flooded agricultural land, that created $600+ million in damages, and left many residents, especially immigrant farmworkers, out of work for extended periods of time. Many of these farmworkers had limited resources, felt isolated from the larger Monterey County community, distrusted the government, and had limited English proficiency and digital literacy skills, making it harder for them to access desperately needed resources.
While the storms have now passed, their impacts are still playing out, and many people are still in need of housing, health care, and financial assistance.
The residents with the least resources to survive on a daily basis felt the most devastating impacts of the storms and are now faced with figuring out how to get fully back on their feet.
A Rainbow in The Storm?
The impacts of the 2023 winter storms were deeply felt throughout the Monterey County community, which was still reeling from several major disasters, including wildfires, landslides, flooding, HazMat incidents, and the COVID-19 pandemic. These impacts loomed over the community in the aftermath of the sorms, but with some storms there is a rainbow just around the corner. The rainbow for Monterey County was the efforts of three different organizations who worked together and expanded on their services to help meet the needs of the community.
As soon as the storms abated, CERV, Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect sprang into action. The partnership between these organizations came about in 2019 through a grant from Listos California that CERV received to assist community-based organizations in disaster preparedness and response. Through this grant, which has received extensions over the past several years, CERV connected with and assisted Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect in disaster preparedness and built a strong relationship with both organizations that could be capitalized on during the 2023 winter storms.
CERV, Mujeres en Accion, and Special Kids Connect are widely different community-based organizations with very different missions. CERV works to support local Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), foster emergency preparedness, and amplify the community's capacity to respond to disasters.
Mujeres en Accion provides leadership training, services and advocacy to Latinas, largely farmworker women; and Special Kids Connect supports children with disabilities and their families. These differences allow them each the unique ability to support and connect with specific groups and, under the common mission of serving the community, they are able to work together to broker more resources and assist more people, especially during disasters, when it’s needed the most.
This synergy was demonstrated during the 2023 storms, as CERV provided the glue that brought the organizations together as well as the disaster management subject matter expertise and connections, while Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect had the trust and connections to the community that allowed them to identify unmet needs and relay them back to CERV to provide support.
From Preparedness to Response
CERV, Mujeres en Accion, Special Kids Connect, and several other important community-based organizations worked before, during and after the storms to connect community members with information, refer them to resources, and help them find assistance for unmet needs.
These organizations were already active in sharing disaster preparedness information and were able to use the foundations they had built to share information and resources to support disaster response and recovery.
In January 2023, after the first of the storm systems passed through Monterey County, Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect expanded their disaster preparedness outreach, providing disaster ready guides and cards that were provided through Listos via CERV, to include disaster response and recovery information, such as flood recovery resources and emergency resource websites. Mujeres en Accion engaged at Disaster Recovery Sites through tabling and community/service events, providing this information to 206 Spanish speaking, low-income individuals and families in Monterey County, including immigrants and refugees. Mujeres en Accion also sent women from farmworker families to do disaster preparation and recovery outreach at food distribution sites and shelters, along with reaching out to people waiting in line to apply for United Farmworker (UFW) Foundation funds.
In February 2023, Mujeres en Accion conducted Peer-to-Peer Safety and Wellness Calls to 108 Spanish speaking low-income farmworkers, immigrants, and refugees in Monterey County, providing them with emergency information and a listening ear. Mujeres en Accion also provided interpretation services to assist disaster survivors who only spoke Mixteco at shelters and assistance centers, providing 3 staff at least 3 days a week fo several weeks. The interpretation services had a huge impact on disaster survivors, allowing these residents, who were largely farmworkers, the ability to apply for disaster relief, while also providing a way to ensure their voices and pain were heard and acknowledged.
As lines of hundreds of people waited at the doors of assistance centers, these interpreters would spend time talking to those in line and seeing how they can support, whether it be through providing information or resources, or just explaining the processes to get help. This helped alleviate confusion, fear, and the feeling of being forgotten amongst some of the most deeply impacted disaster survivors. Many of the population served needed just that, someone who cares, speaks their language, wants to help them, and can take the time to explain to them what is available. While much of this information was provided online, many people did not have the digital literacy to be able to navigate and comprehend the information presented. In addition, as Mixteco is more of a verbal language, having a real person to talk to helped reduce barriers to communication and provided comfort and guidance as people worked to recover after the storms.
As Mujeres en Accion worked to provide emergency information to disaster survivors, the listening ear they also provided, along with the rapport they had already built with the community, allowed them to identify unmet needs of impacted families. Staff listened to families’ stories and struggles and worked to set up plans on how to support them, they then relayed this information back to CERV who searched for the resources and funds. As part of this work, CERV was able to quickly pull from existing relationships with funders, such as Cal Fire Foundation, Community Foundation for Monterey County, and United Way to get a $50,000 grant to provide $300 checks to 168 farmworker families whose work was impacted due to the storms. These checks were then distributed through Mujeres en Accion and Braga Ranch and reached a total of 672 individuals. CERV’s connections to the county’s community foundation, and their previous track record in getting cash aid to wildfire victims, helped pave the way for this quick turnaround of funds to address unmet needs. Since most of these families lived paycheck to paycheck, the quicker the money got distributed, the greater the impact. While the checks were not nearly enough to support full recovery, they did provide families with important temporary relief to help them through the initial storm impacts.
Aside from these checks and the disaster information and resources provided, Mujeres en Accion also took the lead in providing flood survivors with everyday needs, including clothes, diapers, blankets, hygiene items, and food, as well as connecting them with helpful services from agencies, such as Disaster CalFresh, American Red Cross, and United Way. Mujeres en Accion’s grassroots work with farmworker women placed them in an opportune position to help this group, who were some of the most heavily impacted disaster survivors and had limited resources to recover. Overall, these efforts reached over 2,000 people impacted by the storms and flooding.
Similarly, Special Kids Connect built upon their disaster preparedness outreach and training activities to engage with families impacted by the storms. As the first floods hit, Special Kids Connect came across a family in Salinas who was impacted by storm-induced power outages and in desperate need of a generator to operate CPAP machines for 3 members of the household. They contacted CERV, which was able to capitalize quickly on having a generator whiz on its board of directors and reserve funds on hand to purchase 3 battery pack generators (300-watt units) and then work with Special Kids Connect personnel to lend them to the family during the power outages, all within 3 days of the reported need. CERVs disaster preparedness background and the connection created between Special Kids Connect and CERV through the Listos grants made this interaction and rapid response possible, providing a much- needed medical device for a household full of people. When the generators weren’t being used by the family anymore, CERV took them back into its bank of generators and now has them ready to use for the next disaster, ensuring that this resource has a continued utility for the community.
The Road to Recovery
After the last storm system passed, the damage began to be assessed and the rising needs of the community became more apparent. Mujeres en Accion conducted follow up calls for impacted families to identify unmet needs. Special Kids Connect received an influx of calls from families looking for help. Many impacted families were out of work due to flooded agricultural lands; and they didn’t have the income to pay bills, replace rotten food and damaged clothes, clean and repair their homes, or just cover day-to-day expenses. Both organizations reached out to CERV, which was able to leverage state and local resources to get another $45,000 to help impacted families. Using this money,
Mujeres en Accion identified 66 families and provided them gift cards of $500 to $1,000. Special Kids Connect provided 30 families with $500 checks, $50 visa cards, ready guides, and go bags with blankets, chargers, and other helpful items. These efforts provided short term relief to families, helping replace clothing, school supplies, and food and cover bills and rent, but obviously could not address the lasting and persistent housing, health, financial, and informational needs that still exist.
CERV continues to maintain six portable electric and gas generators to share with the community during disasters. CERV continues to seek and share information about grants and assistance to local nonprofits and continues to play a useful role in local Community Emergency Response Team coordination, preparedness efforts, and overall community disaster resilience.
Special Kids Connect has maintained its outreach efforts, continuing to participate in community events, including the Spring Resource Fair in King City, to share go bags and information, survey the storm impacts to the community and identify unmet needs. When needs arise they reach out to CERV and the other organizations they work with to try and find resources to meet the community needs. CERV also continues to support families impacted by the storms, noting the increased long term housing issues brought by the storms, and working with Cal Fire, the Community Foundation for Monterey County, and other funders to try and address some of these lingering needs, particularly for the most disadvantaged groups.
Mujeres en Accion, a member of COPA (Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action), a regional non-profit organization consisting of 27 member institutions across Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties, has been participating in community meetings in Pajaro to better understand the needs of the community, specifically issues around qualifying for FEMA assistance. They are looking into ways to support current unmet needs in the area, including paying bills, repairing flood damage, replacing food and other items damaged during the floods, and obtaining psychological assistance for trauma, especially for children.
From preparedness to recovery, communication between CERV, Special Kids Connect, and Mujeres en Accion has remained strong. These organizations share material and information regularly and work as a team throughout all their efforts to serve the community. They meet monthly, along with CERV’s other community Listos partners, to discuss best practices and lessons learned and facilitate communication during disasters. These groups are all continuously active in disaster recovery, even now, 3 months after the last storm struck. This focus on teamwork throughout the disaster cycle, from preparedness to recovery and back again, allowed them to be successful in helping the community during the recent storms and helps prepare them for whatever adversity or disaster comes next.
What Comes Next?
The efforts of Listos, CERV, Mujeres en Accion, and Special Kids Connect provide a valuable example of how agencies can work together before a disaster to complement one another, advance their ability to respond, and provide relief to those who need it most. The Listos grants initially focused on disaster preparedness for the community’s most vulnerable, enabling CERV to work more closely with community organizations who serve some the hardest to reach and most disadvantaged groups in the community, including farmworkers, non-Spanish/English speakers, and low-income families.
These groups often resist working with governmental agencies and can lose out of valuable and needed resources as a result. They often hesitate to approach anyone they do not feel comfortable with for help, and may need someone to proactively reach out to them and put systems in place that ensures that they can understand and use the information and resources they are available.
The power of having a complementary and strong relationship with other organizations in advance of disasters was well demonstrated during the 2023 storm response. CERV has a wealth of experience and partnerships that make them a trusted agent to distribute money from large entities and governments through trusted messengers to community members, including undocumented residents, who might not access that support otherwise. Their work in disaster preparedness and response has helped further strengthen their relationships and their ever-growing ability to work as a bridge between funders, community- based organizations, and disaster survivors to help address unmet community needs quickly and effectively. However, this work could not be done without the community-based organizations, like Mujeres en Accion and Special Kids Connect. These groups have the other missing piece to the puzzle, the trusted relationships and rapport they have built with the community, allowing these organizations to both proactively and reactively identify needs and help disaster survivors.
Despite all the great work that has been done, there is still so much more to do. Disaster preparedness, coordination, and relationship building are continuous work that will never truly be complete and must be built upon. For example, despite years of effort by CERV and its subgrantees to encourage disaster preparedness, some of the Mixteco population served during the storm recovery noted that the information provided to them in the disaster ready guides about preparedness would have been really helpful if they had known about it earlier.
In addition, an international web portal known as Recovers.org, which helps connect disaster survivors and people and organizations that want to help, was not operative during the winter storms. This resource could have complemented the work done by these organizations; providing survivors the ability to ask for and receive resources directly from people who want to help.
CERV continues to work on bringing this platform, which it successfully used during previous wildfires in Monterey County, back up and running by July 2023. However, further relationship building and teamwork is needed to operate and maintain this system sustainably. As with everything else, this can’t be successfully done without the expertise of different organizations working together.
There is also a need for more consistent and clear information regarding available resources and support. Listos Disaster Ready Guides were helpful resources for the community, however many people during these storms and previous disasters did not know what resources were available, what they were eligible for, were afraid to apply or ask for help, were confused by deadline dates, or were unsure what to put where. Expansion of preparedness efforts and pre-development of both material for and rapport with the community can help alleviate some of these issues.
While recovery is still a major focus, there remains a lurking fear of when the next disaster will strike, particularly in the face of climate change-induced weather-related disasters that will continue to grow in frequency and severity.
The need for mitigation and preparedness has never been more evident, but many still lack the resources and accessible information to fully recover, let alone move from recovery to preparedness in a way that helps them become more disaster resilient.