Merced County Times Newspaper
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County leader points finger at Fish & Wildlife for flood disaster

Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel did not mince words about which government agency he thinks is to blame for the disastrous flooding that happened two weeks ago in the Planada and McSwain area that affected thousands of residents, caused widespread damaged to homes and vehicles, and kept hundreds of young children out of school.

“I will point the finger,” McDaniel stated firmly. “It was Fish and Wildlife. They have held up our permitting process. We are not allowed to clean our creeks, and that’s why we have flooding in Merced County.”

McDaniel and his colleagues had just listened to details of the county’s emergency response to the disaster, as well as views from local residents, during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The supervisor was also quick to praise the efforts of the county’s Emergency Operations Center, Public Works, and the Sheriff’s Department, along with several people and companies in the private sector.

“The system worked,” he said. “I know we need to meet, and probably make some tweaks, and make some improvements, but it was unbelievable how it was set up, and how it was able to work…  We were handling phone calls, text messages… It was amazing how quick we could respond to every detailed call.”

However, McDaniel did reveal that during the crisis he also received “a lot of phone calls asking who is at fault?”

“There was a lot of people pointing fingers, and I kept telling people: ‘We are all in this together. Let’s solve this. Let’s get this done. I don’t want to point fingers… but I will tell you right now it’s [the California Department of  Fish and Wildlife’s] fault. They have held us up from being able to work in those creeks for over five years. I was at the Rural Counties Representing California (RCRC) meeting last week, and I came out hard saying they held up our permitting process… I mean there are trees now in the middle of our creeks because we are not able to cut them. And as soon as I said that at RCRC, the Santa Barbara supervisor stood up and said, “All of our inland flooding was caused by permits held up by Fish and Wildlife.”

McDaniel added that the Monterey County supervisor said the same thing.

Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa continued on the same line of thought, saying the proof could be seen in Planada where piles and piles of brush were removed from Miles Creek and can be seen near the banks. He said that was thanks to Corps of Engineers who cleared the creek after a levee broke and floodwater surged across town.

The discussion capped off a presentation by Mark Pimentel, the deputy director of the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). He said his team will be evaluating data related to the floods for months, but here are the latest stats.

  • Evacuations and emergency warnings affected the entire town of Planada, (about 4,000 people), and about 3,400 in Le Grand and about 1,400 in McSwain.
  • The floods impacted 30 commercial structures where a range of 20 to 400 employees work, resulting in a long-term interruption of business activity.
  • The EOC call center handled about 1,400 calls related to the floods.
  • Earlier this week, 62 displaced residents were being cared for at the Merced Fairgrounds, as well as 10 large animals, mostly horses.
  • The local firefighters association donated $125,000 over a three-day period to support struggling residents impacted by the floods.
  • Further EOC assistance was provided to 560 residents.

Supervisor Scott Silveira praised the county’s response as an “all hands on deck” effort, but warned of a long recovery road ahead. He said he heard of one estimate that it would take the region 18 months to completely rebuild from the damage.

“If you think county government is a bureaucracy, state government is bigger and federal government is even bigger, but what we are committed to do is working with all those folks to ensure we can help all of our residents who were affected get some kind of normalcy back into their life,” he said. “I don’t think that is lost on any of us.”

Supervisor Espinosa called for a needs assessment to get details on just how many people and households were affected in Planada, McSwain and Le Grand. He also called for an update to the county’s emergency planning because he said he received a lot of concerns about residents not receiving emergency texts and calls to evacuate right before the onslaught of the severe flooding.

However, at least a couple of Planada community members were not impressed with Espinoza’s and the county’s performance during the disaster. One noted social worker called for an investigation into the supervisor’s actions.

Alicia Rodriguez, a longtime civic leader in Planada who was named “Woman of the Year” back in 2021, said she wasted valuable time trying to warn the supervisor of danger to Miles Creek before the levee broke.

“Mother Nature can’t be prevented, but sometimes there is a time window to take action. And did Planada have one? Five years ago, in 2018, when the Miles Creek Canal broke, it damaged a neighborhood and a school library. That was five years ago. The day of the flood, I called the supervisor [Espinoza] a little after 3 o’clock. The proof is on my phone. He didn’t seem that concerned, and I told him the canal is not looking good. Streets in Le Grand were being flooded. … Residents were panicking because there was not enough sand and sandbags. There was nothing being done… On Childs Avenue on the way home, I actually had a hard time getting to residents to help them… I took the long way around. I had to go around all kinds of canals that were flooding. And I put my life at risk near the canal bank… I couldn’t even go across the area where the levee broke. It was too deep and there was a resident out there asking for help, and I said, ‘I called for help but nothing is happening… I wish I would have called one of you other supervisors instead… I should have called someone else.”

Planada resident Lucia Alma Chavez had this to say: “I understand when tragedy and disaster happen that it’s time to reflect and a time to evaluate. And I hope that you guys really dig into that work… Mr. Rogers says look for the helpers. We know who are helpers are. We know everyone in town. We know who to look for and those people are active and working hard. A guy that I know is helping with the dumpsters and waiting for them to be empty so he can help pick up trash for his neighbors… Just don’t forget about us. One of the things that happened that we all felt quite deeply was: ‘Where is the central oversight? Where is the leadership that can get all these forces together?’ In a community like ours that is unincorporated, we don’t have a mayor. We don’t have somebody to be a central voice, but we do have a county supervisor. There are all these ad hoc places that do so much work, but we really need somebody to to grab all the tentacles, and gather them, so we can move forward. So please let’s do a lot of that work as well… A lot us community members are not quite sure where all this is going, and where the help is going to be. There is FEMA at the fairgrounds, but we still have people that are without cars who need help. Even going 9 miles to Merced can be difficult. It is 9 miles away, but sometimes it feels like 900.”