By JOHN MILLER & JONATHAN WHITAKER
After two weeks of rescue efforts, searching for shelter and relying on emergency supplies from the outside, stunned and shaken residents of Planada are working together to rebuild their homes, businesses, and schools.
They want their lives and their town back after the devastating Jan. 10 flood.
And to achieve this, residents and community leaders say they are moving forward like they always do — with a sense of independence.
“We have committed residents who have been here for generations,” says Alicia Rodriguez, a noted community activist and member of the local St. Vincent de Paul Society. “Everybody is trying to help each other out. That’s all we know.”
One positive sign of recovery came on Monday when hundreds of the town’s children returned to school. However, some 300 youngsters were moved from Planada Elementary School to Cesar E. Chavez Middle School where educators are sharing classrooms and team teaching. The elementary school suffered major damage when a levee broke along the nearby Miles Creek. Dozens of classrooms, offices and the library were flooded with water up to 2 feet deep. School officials say it could take between 6-10 months to restore the damage.
Meanwhile, the community cleanup continues, along with efforts to aid entire families left with few possessions or displaced from their homes. About 30 households have been relocated to living spaces at the Felix Torres Migrant Center.
But the people of Planada are not alone. In addition to disaster relief assistance from state and federal agencies, local volunteers in Le Grand and Merced are mobilizing for the long haul ahead.
“I don’t want this to die. I don’t want it to be yesterday’s news. This is going to be an ongoing thing,” says Reno Martinelli, a Merced resident who worked as an educator in Planada for 38 years. “There are so many people who need so much.”
Martinelli is working with Donna Alley, the superintendent of the Le Grand Union High School District, to promote and build up a flood relief fund for Planada residents.
“We are trying to get a handle on how many households were hit in the Planada town proper,” Martinelli says. “We know there are more than 4,000 residents. We need to know how many households have been affected by this so we can set up the criteria for this fund, and how we are going to give out money. We want to give the same amount to everybody. … It may not solve all their problems, but it will help them buy some furniture or an appliance — anything to help take the load off of them.”
Martinelli says they are asking the community for monetary donations, but they aren’t going to stop there.
“We have been brainstorming,” he says. “Oprah Winfrey’s name has come up. Ellen DeGeneres’ name has come up. And I think we are going to contact Good Morning America to see if we can get a producer to send somebody out here. We are also working on a public service announcement on local radio and TV.”
The fund has reached about $15,000 so far. Donation checks can be sent to:
LGHS Flood Relief 2023
12961 E. Le Grand Road
Le Grand, CA 95333
Superintendent Alley says human kindness can also be shared by donating supplies to a center that was opened up at Le Grand High School soon after the flooding started.
“We have had a wonderful response,” she says. “The Ag teachers and students headed it up. We opened up the school gym and accepted all kinds of donations for the past two weeks. It’s been moved to Baxter Hall with the kids returning to school on Monday.”
So far, the donation center has served more than 250 families in Planada with clothes, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, medicine, blankets, sheets and towels — the latter three being in high demand. They have also handed out gas cards and gift cards for Save Mart and Rancho San Miguel.
It’s open during school hours, and on weekends depending on the availability of volunteers. They also collect and deliver supplies to Planada families upon request. For more information, call (209) 389-9400.
Inside Planada, Alicia Rodriguez of St. Vincent De Paul is working with volunteers to facilitate donations and assist residents in a temporary space at 9393 Broadway.
Rodriguez is no stranger to these types of relief efforts. In recent years, her group provided meals during the COVID-19 lockdown, and shelter for victims of the Detwiler Fire.
“But this is more personal,” she says. “We have 250 households who we are working with all at one time. They’ve lost their cars, their clothing, their pictures. They have to go back to work and they ask: ‘What are we going to do now?’ … We are just trying to get through one day at a time. This is what this is about because they don’t know what’s next.”
Rodriguez says for many in the community, it’s the first time they have ever had to ask for help in such a way. She says they value privacy and a place they can trust.
“I walk around and check out the residents on a daily basis. We call them, or they come here. It’s really a lot different than the assembly line that they got going on in other areas. Some don’t want to be there for various reasons. Some of the people who work in the fields are afraid to talk to government workers.”
Rodriguez is also concerned about the displaced families living in temporary conditions at the local migrant center. She is fearful that landlords will be reluctant to conduct home repairs, and that too much time will pass before the migrant center is needed for its intended purpose, once again displacing families.
She has begun planning for a second phase of donations to stock up for the weeks, even months ahead. Currently she is working with local businesses to gather items such as bed sheets, mattresses, pillows, blankets, towels, and other durable items. There is also a continuous need for items such as deodorants, masks, medical supplies, ready-made food, snacks, cooking supplies, toothpaste, and more. Those looking to help the local effort are encouraged to reach out to Rodriguez by calling (209) 201-1743.
Next door, at Deanna’s Hair Salon, local residents and workers from Centurion Boats have been making a difference for the little shop on Broadway where floodwaters reached counter-high levels. Last Saturday, Shane Stillman of Centurion Boats and others showed up to clean up the interior and remove damaged items.
Deanna’s Hair Salon is owned and operated by by Deanna Adame, a Planada resident who entered cosmetology school right after graduating from high school in 1989.
“She’s always wanted to service the community in that way,” her sister Lucrisia says. “She very easily could’ve just opened a big salon in Merced, but she saw a need here in the Planada community and wanted to help.”
Commitment to the community was in full view last weekend as locals were joined by visiting volunteers — including a small student group from El Capitan High School — in a massive street cleanup effort. Along the length of Broadway down to Cabrillo Street, family members could be seen carrying drywall, insulation, soaked wood, and other ruined materials out of their own homes. Others were piling up large appliances, tree branches and shrubs in numerous large waste bins normally reserved for everyday trash. Some workers had access to Bobcats, John Deere tractors, and other heavy machinery that helped move along the process.
Down the street, the Planada Community Center was buzzing with activity as a Ground Zero of sorts for donations, free meals, and services from local organizations. There was a Street Medicine Team provided by Golden Valley Health Centers following the temporary closure of its local clinic. The American Red Cross and The Salvation Army were there to feed residents who are unable to cook their own meals. These emergency food services are planned to continue through Jan. 28.
Those in need of clothing were given access to donated items, and if residents simply needed to wash their existing clothes they were able to do so at a mobile laundromat available in the parking lot.
Other organizations such as Cultiva la Salud and Habitat for Humanity we’re also present to help hand out donated supplies, including toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, fresh water, and toys for children.
Federal resources present at the Planada Community Center last weekend included the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Merced Rotary serves lunch for struggling Planada residents
Members of the Merced Rotary Club showed up to the Planada Community Center last Sunday armed with supplies and the will to create an outdoor kitchen in the parking lot of the town’s Community Center, and fittingly near the Amigos Market. The volunteers helped feed hundreds of residents and contributed to a weekend effort that galvanized the broader local community to help the town clean up after the disastrous flooding of Jan. 10.