On Dec. 31, heavy rains overwhelmed Corralitos and Salsipuedes creeks and sent floodwaters cascading into several neighborhoods in Watsonville and unincorporated South County.
Sonia Corrales was among hundreds whose lives were upended.
She says her home in the College Lake area was rendered uninhabitable, forcing her family–three children, two parents and younger siblings–to flee, and later take up residence in the garage while construction crews rebuilt and removed mold that invaded every room.
Corrales reckons that she spent $40,000, the amount her insurance company did not cover. Then, her home flooded again in March when the Pajaro River Levee breached.
She is now one of roughly 500 people who are joining a mass-action lawsuit against several agencies and governmental organizations, alleging they were negligent in not doing enough to prevent the flooding from occurring.
The tort claim filed June 28 in Monterey County Superior Court names eight defendants: Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency (PRFMA), Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Monterey County Water Resources Agency, Caltrans, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the City of Watsonville.
Corrales says that past flooding events should have prompted a broader and more aggressive response from officials.
“They’ve had time to prevent this from occurring,” she says. “The county could have done something to clean up the creeks and levees to prevent this from happening, and yet they didn’t. I’m saying it was negligence on their part.”
Filing a claim is typically a precursor to a lawsuit. Defendants have around 45 days to respond, after which plaintiffs can officially file a suit.
Entities involved in potential litigation typically do not comment publicly.
Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin declined to comment, and PRFMA Director Mark Strudley and Board Chair Zach Friend did not respond to an email.
Watsonville spokeswoman Michelle Pulido says the city has received the claim and is reviewing it.
Caltrans spokesman Kevin Drabinski said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.
Monterey County officials had not yet seen the claim as of Thursday, but said the county is committed to response and long-term recovery for the community of Pajaro following this disaster.
“We continue to advocate for more resources, such as the recent $20 million in assistance now in the state budget, maintaining the presence of our FEMA partners in Pajaro to support community needs and continuing to support sheltering for families who are still not able to return home,” county spokesman Nick Pasculli said. “Our next steps include the creation of a Pajaro Recovery Task Force to help direct recovering planning.”
Corrales also says that residents were largely left to fend for themselves during and after the flooding, trying to unclog drains, direct traffic and fill potholes.
“No one came over here to aid us, and no evacuation orders were sent until my home was already under water,” she says. “My home was under water for the first two weeks of January, and no one came to pump the streets or anything.”
Lead plaintiff attorney Brian Kabateck says that anyone wanting to be a part of the mass-action suit must hire a lawyer.
It is too early to put a dollar amount on the total losses, he said, but they include damage to dwellings and personal property, expenses incurred for living outside of their homes and damage to businesses that either closed temporarily or permanently.
Flood control officials have previously stated that the unexpected ferociousness of the storms put the flooding beyond the control of public officials, an assertion Kabateck rejects.
“Yes there was a massive storm, no question about it,” he said. “But, had they properly taken action, had they done the things they needed to do, this wouldn’t have happened, or at least it wouldn’t have happened to the extent it happened.”