There appeared to be positive reactions to a draft spending plan for $20 million in state flood relief for the community of Planada after it was presented during a meeting on Tuesday night.
Dozens of residents showed up at Cesar E. Chavez Middle School in town to hear about how the money was going to be spent.
Merced County — the lead agency for distribution of the funds — has been holding a number of workshops in recent weeks to collect feedback from residents and discuss the process. Officials highlighted the idea that the preliminary plan is a work in progress, and it continues to be fine-tuned.
The town was devastated by flooding last January after a levee on Miles Creek was breached during a powerful storm. The $20 million came to Merced County as part of an effort between local nonprofits, UC Merced researchers and state representatives that resulted in a state budget allocation. They found that few Planada residents could access initial FEMA disaster aid due to their citizenship status. Others had no unemployment benefits as credit card bills piled up.
The updated plan for the relief package includes a relatively simple, straightforward application process for funding or repairs that can be done in-person and with personal assistance. From March 11 to April 20, according to the plan, residents would be able to attend in person appointments at the Planada Community Center where county staff will help residents complete the applications.
Basically, all they will have to do is show proof of Planada residence as of Jan. 9, 2023, a photo ID and proof of flood-related damage. No Social Security card needed.
“This is very good,” said Reno Martinelli, a former educator in the community who attended the meeting to see how the plan was being handled. “It’s not complicated. If you make this process complicated they are not going to go apply for the funds.”
However, there are some general rules: Funds cannot cover specific losses covered through other sources. Repairs cannot be made to return construction to non-permitted or unsafe conditions. Repairs and compensation can only be made for impacts from the flooding.
The proposed budget allocates $8 million to home repairs (through the guidance of a non-profit partner organization such as Habitat for Humanity), $4 million in direct assistance (rent/mortgage payments, vehicle damage, personal property loss), $3 million for infrastructure (water studies, improvements to sewer systems, and re-establishing the Post Office), $2.5 million for other considerations (tenant protections, lost wages not covered by other sources), $500,000 for business support (Up to $20,000 for inventory or equipment loss), and $2 million for administrative and inspection costs.
People in the audience were allowed to comment and ask questions. One speaker who received a round of applause was Ildefonso Nava, principal of Planada Middle School, when he asked about the Post Office in town.
“Being that the U.S. Postal Service is a federal department, why is Planada having to spend some of its $20 million in state funds to relocate or rebuild the town’s Post Office?” he asked.
Unfortunately, the Post Office was located in a privately owned building. It appears the Postal Service will return to an office location in town when a suitable building is available. County officials say they are exploring using some of the spending plan’s “infrastructure” money to perhaps find a new Post Office site.
Nava told the Times that local residents, including elderly people, continue to suffer from being forced to travel to Merced to get their mail. While mail is being delivered to residences in Planada, it’s only on specific routes, and therefore a significant number of people get their mail through P.O. Boxes.
“This is something that continues to impact the community,” Nava said. “They have to spend extra time, extra money on gas, and show up in person with ID in Merced, sometimes having to wait in a long line at a busier Post Office.”
Mark Hendrickson, assistant county executive officer, and Erick Serrato, executive director of the county’s Department of Workforce Investment, say another spending plan update will be coming on Dec. 14. They expect a final version to go before the county’s Board of Supervisors in January.
Meanwhile, community activists are urging those affected by the floods to get organized, keep every purchase receipt and repair documentation, and itemize everything they may have lost.
“Go big,” Alicia Rodriguez suggested to one couple who lost everything to the floods except the foundation of their home. “Make a list of everything.”
Rodriguez said she is worried that the county’s strategy to conduct home repairs with the help of nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity will not be adequate to tackle the problems. She feels they won’t have enough manpower to take care of all the households, and all that is needed to be done in a timely manner.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez told the Times she felt the draft spending plan was “80 percent better than what we’ve heard before, but there is still work to be done.”