Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Pájaro Valley: Neglect as a Policy Decision

Guest blogger: Sequoyah Hilton, Masters in Migration Studies Student, University of San Francisco:

My mother is the vice principal of Pájaro Valley Middle School in Monterey County, California. This school, located in the valley of the same name, is predominantly attended by students from farmworker families in the nearby strawberry fields. Over the weekend, an atmospheric river with heavy rainfall hit the valley, causing the levee to breach and flood the entire area. My mother called me on Saturday, saying her school was going to be closed for the next two weeks, but realistically they were planning for a closure lasting through the school year. Through the weekend, she and the other office staff were working frantically to quickly find another place for her students to fit in the school district. This is not the first time this year the school has been issued closures due to storm flooding, but the levee breaching has made the damage significantly worse. When I asked, she made it clear remote learning is not an option being considered by administrators. “The national guard has completely cordoned off the area”, she said, and many students evacuated from their homes are living in shelters. Having a place to go for the day would be important for keeping a semblance of stability while the national guard and other first responding agencies tried to deal with the damage. As I write this on Wednesday, March 15, it is the first day that the students are merging with Lakeview Middle School, and because of the damage, average twenty minute commutes  are turning into two-hour drives. . Many students have lost everything in the flooding, leading staff to try to at least source them school uniforms and backpacks. 

In this piece, I reflect on the current flooding affecting Pájaro Valley in rural California, and how this current situation and levee breaching is the result of a federal choice of neglect. This is not the first instance of how a great environmental risk was known by local and federal government agencies and not acted upon. Extensive research was conducted on the levee and its dire need of repairs in the past. However, the safety and infrastructural needs of this largely undocumented migrant working community was ignored, which is currently proving to come at great cost to their stability and livelihoods. 

This flooding has made national headlines. The New York times article on the disaster writes about it narratively– giving the event a novel air of dramatic unknowing on an unsuspecting community:

It began as a trickle, seeping through a 74-year old earthen levee in Northern California, dribs and drabs of the Pajaro River, swollen with rain yet again on Friday night. Then pools bubble up beyond the levee walls, spreading toward darkened fields of strawberries and lettuce. Four miles downstream, the farmworker community of Pajaro slept (Arango & Hubler 2023).

Despite attempts by local flood management to sandbag the levee, it breached anyway, and hundreds of residents are living in the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville (which is already at maximum capacity) (Arango & Hubler, 2023). Many climate specialists and state officials acknowledge the widespread outdatedness of flood management infrastructure. Jeffery Mount, a researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California, claimed the majority of this infrastructure is over a half a century old, and claims that as much attention needs to be given to flood preparation as drought preparedness (Arango & Hubler, 2023). The lack of infrastructural maintenance is infamous and passively known in any part of the United States, but with the massive environmental devastation facing all of California this winter, its consequences are revealing themselves violently. 

This inaction -- this selective blindness to glaring infrastructural needs on a statewide level -- is not merely an accidental forgetting, a simple absence of a choice, or even a case of mistaken priorities. This neglect of policy and funding is a violent decision, and due to the reality it has created for the community of Pajaro Valley should be treated as a policy choice. In this way, accountability can be more justly applied to the policymakers and agencies responsible for the outcomes we see today. As time passes from the initial levee breaching, more critical information is being released about governmental organizations and their knowledge about the Pajaro levees inadequacy. A local paper, Lookout Santa Cruz, published an article claiming that “officials had known for decades that the Pajaro River levee [built in 1949]…was vulnerable but never prioritized repairs…because they believed it did not make financial sense to protect the low-income areas” as found in interviews and official reports from the US Army Corps of Engineers as early as the 1960s (Rust, 2023). Essentially, the implicated groups, including federal Congress, the federal government Corps of Engineers and others concluded that repairs were not worth benefit-cost ratios in ‘lower-income areas’. The lack of upkeep and the inadequacy of the levee to handle the rainfall can thus be designated as intentional. This assessment of worthwhileness was a determining factor in the severity of the disaster we see today. So much of the displacement and loss was directly linked to a decision by government researchers not to act, not to fund, and to leave the community neglected in the face of known danger. 

Additionally, given the vulnerable status of many families as being undocumented, many are being denied the typical avenues of disaster aid and relief. Cal Matters writes about the unequal access to emergency aid, stressing that “undocumented workers…are, by law, ineligible for federally funded programs such as unemployment or aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency” (Hepler et al, 2023). With many of these marginalized residents losing their jobs and losing their homes, they deserve the help from the state whose economy runs on their labor. This is especially vital as March is the time of year they typically harvest strawberries, raspberries and other crops. Mutual aid funds by farmworker justice organizations, such as Campesina Womb Justice, seem to be the primary drivers of aid and assistance to these communities in the immediate aftermath (@Campesinawombjustice, Instagram ). Aware of the government’s demonstrable failures to the residents of Pajaro, many of these grassroot organizations are taking it upon themselves to fundraise and gather supplies needed in the area right now. At the state level, Los Angeles Assemblymember Miguel Santiago is cosponsoring a Senate Bill to provide unemployment benefits to undocumented Californians (Hepler et. al, 2023). In the future this will be absolutely necessary, but for now, there is a lack of official aid that is available to the majority of the affected population. 

Despite the nation’s utter dependence on the fruits of these families' labors, they are still disadvantaged in the face of disaster that could have been prevented, or at least significantly reduced if prior government action had been taken. Even though this information about the neglect and its impact is only gaining attention in the face of environmental and community devastation, I hope we all share a collective outrage over what has happened in the PajaroValley and the effect on its residents, and that they are provided the reparative government action they deserve.

Works Cited

Arango, Time & Hubler, Shawn. (2023, March 14). “California Levee Failures Mount as Storms Continue Relentless Drive” New York Times.

CampesinaWombJustice. (2023). @Campesinawombjustice, instagram.

Hepler, Lauren, Foy, Nicole & Fry, Wendy. (2023, March 15).As emergency aid flows to flooded-out Californians, will thousands be left out?, CalMatters,

Rust, Susanna. (2023, March 13). “Before disastrous flood, officials knew Pajaro River levee could fail but took no action”. Santa Cruz Lookout,


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