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Planada residents blast relief efforts

Planada residents blast relief efforts.
Planada residents blast relief efforts.

Residents of Planada let loose on county and federal disaster officials in a town hall meeting last Thursday, criticizing the slow recovery effort after January’s flood left much of the town underwater.

They filled the gym at Cesar Chavez Middle School, voicing concerns ranging from having to drive all the way to Merced to collect mail to a lack of emergency notifications on the night of the floods and everything in between.

“How can we function when we have no school, we have no fire station, we have no clinic or community center?” said one resident.

Among those on hand to field the complaints – and there were many – were Maria Figueroa of FEMA, Mark Pimentel of MCFD, staff from Merced Human Services Agency and Department of Public Works and Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, who has faced criticism from some residents who claim he was AWOL during the disaster.

“It’s been awful the last three weeks,” Espinoza said. “I’m here. I’m not afraid to talk to anybody.”

A number of locals reported not even qualifying for FEMA’s disaster assistance, and residents and business owners alike balked at the idea of having to take out a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration to pay for damages. The SBA approved $10 million in disaster loans for Californians affected by last month’s flooding.

FEMA is currently operating two Disaster Recovery Centers, one at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Planada and the other at the Merced Fairgrounds, where some of the evacuees are still being housed.

“Is there going to be help when all these [aid organizations] are gone? Is there going to be help for all the people that lived here their whole lives?” asked Lupe Barriga, a 60-year resident who fought back tears as she spoke.

Residents also demanded answers from county officials on the status of Miles Creek, which flows south of the town and was ground zero where much of the flooding started.

“I want to ask: what happened?” said Sonia Alshami, a Merced resident who volunteers in Planada. “I’ve driven by the creek many times and have seen overgrown weeds and even trees in the banks. Why wasn’t this ever cleaned?”

“This has occurred before already, but we ignored this,” said one resident, who criticized the lack of maintenance on the creek. “It needed to go deeper and wider, but it did not. It has been that way for years.”

Flooding on March 22, 2018 caused more than $500,000 in damages to Planada Elementary School, inundating four classrooms and the library under seven inches of water. It was caused in much the same way as January’s flood, by runoff from the foothills flooding over Miles Creek.

An awkward silence fell over the gym after a resident asked officials point blank what their plan was for the creek. County leaders simply looked at each other as residents shouted at them to respond. Eventually, Merced County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez grabbed a microphone.

“Obviously there’s work that needs to be done going forward to try to mitigate this from happening again,” said Mendez. “But right now we are focused on trying to connect the available assistance and resources to families and residents of Planada.”

There has been no clear answer on Miles Creek, though County officials have placed the blame on their counterparts from the state. At a meeting last week, County Supervisor Daron McDaniel pointed to delays from the Department of Fish and Wildlife in approving permits to clear the creek bed.

As of last weekend, the County did arrange for trucks to begin removing debris from the town. It was a sore spot for residents and a constant reminder of what they had lost.

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