PAJARO, Calif. - Hundreds of residents in areas hard hit by flooding in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties are now going to court over damages. Those residents say various government agencies in charge of flood control and levees in the area knew of the potential for disaster — but did not do enough to prevent it.
The signs of the flooding clean-up and repair are still visible all over Pajaro. At one home, a large pile of debris and drywall remains in the front yard as workers continue to clean up the damage.
On March 11, a levee holding back the Pajaro River burst, sending water flooding into neighborhoods and forcing nearly 2,000 people to evacuate. Heavy rains had been pounding the region for months, and a series of storms that started on New Year's Eve also caused major flooding and evacuations in next-door Watsonville.
"It has been really difficult for us," said Sonia Corrales, a resident who evacuated during the floods.
Corrales was evacuated from her home two different times, and she says she felt abandoned by the government.
"I just want to bring awareness to everyone and make sure that our voices are heard. Because this not only affected us financially and emotionally, but we had to look for other places to live," Corrales said.
California law says anyone planning to sue the government must first file what is called a "claim." The public agencies involved then have 45 days to respond. After that, the residents can file an actual lawsuit in court over the damages they suffered.
"These claims are the first step toward filing a lawsuit against the governments that we believe are responsible for the terrible flooding situation that our clients endured," said Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles-based attorney for the flooding victims in both Pajaro and Watsonville.
Kabateck said more than 700 residents have now filed claims against nine different governmental agencies that have oversight responsibility for flood control.
"Our position is that these governments did not do anything to maintain the flood system. They could have cleaned it out, they could have taken out debris, they could have made it more effective. They could have made it state-of-the-art. Plus we know that this has happened before," Kabateck said.
Kabateck said he also does not buy the "once in a lifetime" argument he has heard from some government leaders.
"For them to hide behind the claim that this is a ‘once in a lifetime' event ignores the fact that everybody knew that a large storm was coming. Now, they didn’t necessarily know that it was going to be this year or next year or five years from now," Kabateck said.
Back in Watsonville, Corrales said her children are still worried.
"My kids are asking, ‘What is going to happen this December, what is going to happen this rainy season? Are we going to have to get rid of all of our stuff again?’" Corrales said.
Monterey County did send a general statement about the claims, saying in part: "The County of Monterey remains committed to response and long term recovery for the community of Pajaro following this disaster. We continue to advocate for more resources… to support community needs and continuing to support sheltering for families who are still not able to return home."