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For farmworkers recovering from Central Valley flooding, the safety net is thin


As a heat wave sweeps the southwest, California's Central Valley is under an excessive heat warning all weekend. That region is still recovering from floods earlier this year, with immigrant farmworkers among the most affected. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Tyche Hendricks reports.

MIRIAM HERRERA CEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

TYCHE HENDRICKS, BYLINE: In the little town of Planada in the heart of the Central Valley, Miriam Herrera Ceja shows me the damage in her rented house. The floors are buckling, and the doors are stuck.

HERRERA CEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: In January, as heavy rains hit the area, a levee on a canal ruptured and flooded out hundreds of families in this farm community.

HERRERA CEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: Now Herrera Ceja, a mother of three, is facing unexpected expenses. Water ruined the fridge, the oven, the washer and dryer and the car her husband needs to get to his job at a dairy farm.

HERRERA CEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She tells me they had come to Planada fleeing the violence of a criminal gang in Mexico and were admitted to the U.S. to seek asylum. "We were just starting over," she says, "and now we're left with nothing again." She says she applied for aid from FEMA but was rejected. Only certain noncitizens qualify.

HERRERA CEJA: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She was able to replace the appliances with secondhand things and got donated furniture. They had to spend the money they'd saved for an immigration lawyer to get a working car.

ANASTACIO ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: A few blocks away, Anastacio Rosales is still salvaging and disinfecting his belongings, stacked under tarps on his back patio. He shows me the mark on a wall from where the floodwaters pooled 3 feet deep.

ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: He got some money from FEMA but says it barely made a dent. He depended on volunteers to help tear out the sodden sheetrock. Though he's 70 years old, he says he wants to get back to work in the sweet potato fields.

ROSALES: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: "The planting was delayed because the fields were swamped," he says. "So now there's not much work." Farm communities throughout California have been hit hard, with workers losing weeks or months of wages. For many of the people who harvest California's crops, the safety net is thin. More than half of the state's farm workers are undocumented immigrants. And though many have worked here for decades, they're not eligible for federal disaster aid or unemployment insurance.

ANNA CABALLERO: These are my constituents who get up and work every day. Most of them have lived in the community for many years.

HENDRICKS: That's state Senator Anna Caballero, who represents Planada and much of the Central Valley. She says many of these communities are also vulnerable because they don't have the systems, like street gutters and storm drains, to keep water away from homes.

CABALLERO: The unincorporated areas in rural California are areas where there has been disinvestment in the infrastructure.

HENDRICKS: Earlier this year, the state did commit $95 million to flood relief for undocumented residents throughout California. Caballero pushed for and got an additional 20 million to aid people in Planada regardless of their immigration status. Climate scientists predict that human-caused warming will increase the risks of extreme floods like those seen this year in California. And that raises broader questions about who gets protected from climate disasters, says Edward Flores, co-director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

EDWARD FLORES: We need to have a different approach to economic and climate resilience if we're going to protect the rights and the well-being of those that are furthest on the margins.

HENDRICKS: He led a survey that tallied the losses in Planada, helping to win state aid. And he says immigration status shouldn't affect eligibility for relief or having a voice in disaster planning. Meantime, there's little risk of further flooding this year. State water officials say rivers are running high, but most of the winter's massive snowpack has already melted. For NPR News, I'm Tyche Hendricks in Planada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tyche Hendricks