In a California Town, Farmworkers Start From Scratch After Surprise Flood

PLANADA, Calif. — Until the floodwaters came, until they rushed in and destroyed nearly everything, the little white house had been Cecilia Birrueta’s dream.

She and her husband bought the two-bedroom fixer-upper 13 years ago, their reward for decades of working minimum wage jobs, first cleaning houses in Los Angeles and now milking cows and harvesting pistachios in California’s Central Valley.

The couple replaced the weathered wooden floors, installed a new stove and kitchen sink and repainted the living room walls a warm burgundy. Here, they raised their three children, the oldest now at the University of California, Davis. They enjoyed tomatoes, peaches and figs from neighbors who worked on the nearby farms.

Ms. Birrueta and her husband felt content. Until last month. Until the floodwaters came.

A brutal set of atmospheric rivers in California unleashed a disaster in Planada, an agricultural community of 4,000 residents in the flatlands about an hour west of Yosemite National Park. During one storm in early January, a creek just outside of town busted through old farm levees and sent muddy water gushing into the streets.

For several days, the entire town looked like a lagoon. Weeks after record-breaking storms wreaked havoc across California and killed at least 21 people, some of the hardest hit communities are still struggling to recover.

The flood ruined the two cars owned by Ms. Birrueta and her family and destroyed most of their clothes. The walls with the burgundy paint that she had carefully picked out had rotted through. Their house may need to be demolished.

Ms. Birrueta, her husband and their 14-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter had to move into a camp that typically houses migrant farmworkers, who arrive each spring with few belongings and the hope of building a life like the Birruetas had. There, 41 families from Planada are staying in long, beige cabins and relying on space heaters for warmth because the camps lack furnaces.

“We came as immigrants, we started with nothing,” said Ms. Birrueta, 40, who was born in Mexico. “We bought a place of our own that we thought would be safe for our kids, and then we lost it. We lost everything.”

Nine miles east of Merced in California’s agricultural heartland, Planada’s wide streets are dotted with bungalows and lead to a central park shaded by towering spruce and elm trees. Less than two square miles, Planada was created in 1911 to be an idyllic, planned farming community — its name means “plain” in Spanish, a nod to its fertile, low-lying lands — but was eventually abandoned by its Los Angeles developers.

The quiet town, surrounded by almond orchards and corn fields, has since become a desirable place for farmworkers with families to settle. When California farmworkers marched through Planada last summer on their way to the State Capitol in Sacramento, hundreds of children lined the streets to cheer them on.

The recent floods dealt a painful blow to a community in which more than a third of households are impoverished. Planada is more than 90 percent Latino and overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking. Roughly a quarter of residents are estimated to be undocumented immigrants, making them ineligible for some forms of disaster relief.

Agricultural workers in California are often on the front lines of catastrophes. They worked during the early, uncertain days of the Covid-19 pandemic, have endured record heat waves and toiled in the smoke-choked air that gets trapped in the Central Valley during wildfires.

During the recent floods, tens of thousands of farmworkers most likely lost wages because of water damage to California’s crops, compounding their already precarious financial situations, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers of America.

“The very workers who put food on our table are getting hot meals from the Salvation Army,” said Mr. De Loera-Brust. “Whether California is on fire or underwater, the farmworkers are always losing.”

On a recent morning in Planada, huge piles of furniture were stacked more than six feet high along the curb, as if standing guard in front of each home. Once cherished possessions had become trash: A child’s tricycle. A green velvet armchair. An engraved wooden crib.

When Ms. Birrueta returned to her home after evacuating on Jan. 9, it had a sour smell inside, she said. A floral rug in her daughter’s room that had once been white and blue appeared black after being caked in mud. The girl rushed to grab her soaked toys, some of them recent Christmas gifts. Ms. Birrueta had to wrest them from her hands. They threw away her pink wooden dollhouse, a Build-a-Bear she called Rambo, her beloved collection of Dr. Seuss books.

“I don’t really know how to talk to my kids about it,” Ms. Birrueta said, choking up.

Ms. Birrueta applied for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but has yet to hear back. Though Planada is in a flood zone, most homeowners said they couldn’t afford to pay thousands of dollars for flood insurance. Besides, they said, so many years of severe heat and drought made wildfires seem a much greater concern than a deluge.

Maria Figueroa, a FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency would provide at most $41,000 per flooded household. The funds are intended to jump-start recovery, not cover a full rebuild. “We’re not an insurance agency,” she said.

In 1910, the Los Angeles real estate developer J. Harvey McCarthy decided that Planada would be his “city beautiful,” a model community and an automobile stop along the road to Yosemite. “The town will be laid out similar to Paris,” The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram reported at the time.

An infusion of money brought Planada a bank, hotel, school, church and its own newspaper, the Planada Enterprise, by the following year. But McCarthy eventually abandoned the community when he ran out of funds, leaving its settlers to pick up the pieces.

One thing wasn’t mentioned in advertisements for Planada: the floods. On Feb. 3, 1911, The Merced County Sun reported that during a 48-hour downpour, a creek overflowed its banks and that Planada was “under water.”

More than a century later, Maria Soto, 73, was sleeping when her grandson, who lives in the house behind hers, banged on her door around 2 a.m. A family member was driving a pickup truck through Planada to rescue their relatives, dozens of whom lived there.

Ms. Soto clambered onto the truck bed, and her feet dangled in the rising waters as they fled. When the engine stalled momentarily, she was frightened but didn’t tell anyone else that she didn’t know how to swim.

At her low-slung, peach-colored home, with an overgrown avocado tree out front and wind chimes hanging from the eaves, water breached the roof and poured down the walls.

Black patches of mold have begun to spread inside, so she is living at her daughter’s house next door while trying to scrape together money on her fixed income for the repairs.

“This is where I raised my children, and it’s always been dry,” said Ms. Soto, who in the late 1970s moved to Planada with her husband who picked lettuce. “We weren’t prepared. No one was prepared.”

Disasters only exacerbate the health dangers that farmworkers face. Mold in flooded homes, for example, can prompt symptoms of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which are more common in low-income communities. Farmworkers often battle pesticide exposure and, even in good times, can only afford substandard housing.

“A small community like Planada, that has so many low-wage workers, you can only imagine the extent to which these problems were already existing,” said Edward Flores, an associate professor of sociology at U.C. Merced who co-wrote a new study revealing California farmworkers’ poor living conditions.

The flood’s impacts extend beyond inundated homes. Planada Elementary School lost 4,000 books as well as student desks, beanbag chairs and rugs. Hundreds of students had to be relocated to a nearby middle school.

“We were doing a really good job recovering from Covid,” said José L. González, the superintendent of the Planada Elementary School District. “This just feels like we’re cut off at the knees again.”

Another major storm arrived this week in California, bringing rain and snow, but Planada residents have been spared from further disaster.

Ms. Birrueta used to tuck sentimental items into suitcases that she stored in her son’s closet. Old photographs of relatives in Mexico, including of her father who recently died. Socks she crocheted for her children when they were newborns. Pictures of her oldest daughter’s birthday celebrations, from an era before iPhones.

The floodwaters drenched those suitcases and everything inside. Still, Ms. Birrueta said she was grateful because her family safely escaped the floods and have a roof over their heads, albeit temporarily. Families can stay in the migrant camps until March 15, after which the county may provide other lodging.

Ms. Birrueta and her husband plan to rebuild their home in Planada.

“We started with nothing,” she said. “So in a way, we know how to start over again.”

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