When it rains it pours: San Diego flood victims ask, ‘Who’s to blame?’

Record rainfall flooded San Diego neighborhoods in late January.

San Diego — The community room at the Robinson YMCA on Feb. 26 was filled with local grassroots organizations and individuals who came together to develop effective strategies to deliver resources to help those in need. This was the Southeast San Diego Flood Relief Community Meeting.

I was aware that many communities were impacted by the unprecedented rains driven by climate change that struck Southern California. A house on my street flooded after rain poured down on the city on Jan. 21. A huge city truck with a big hose blocked a portion of the street, pumping water from my neighbor’s backyard. The truck was there for two days. 

I asked one of the city workers what’s going on and he responded that the back of their house was flooded with sewage water and had to be drained. My response was, “Sewage water! How did that happen?” He said the drains were clogged with debris as the water flowed downhill.

San Diego saw the fourth wettest day on record in its entire history, according to NBC meteorologists. Six hours of rainfall on Jan. 21 matched the normal rainfall for a three-month period. City workers had their hands full pumping water in impacted communities.

It wasn’t until a May Day organizing committee meeting recently that I became fully aware of the devastating impact that the flooding had on families in low-income, working-class communities.

Communities in Southeast San Diego — including Encanto, Logan Heights, Mountain View, and Southcrest – were severely affected by flooding.

Southeast San Diego is described as a vibrant, urbanized, ethnically diverse community that reflects a rich tapestry of cultures and histories in the most expensive city in the U.S.

Melody lives in Spring Valley, East San Diego. I spoke to her before I attended the meeting. She told me that her home and car were flooded, and she is currently staying in a hotel with no transportation. She said she has no flood insurance, because her house was in a no-flood zone. 

The water rose to about three feet in her home because she had an empty pool that captured a lot of sewage water. But many of her neighbors had water up to their waists. There is water damage throughout her street. Melody said the city is trying to blame it on homeless people clogging up the drains.

I told her about the meeting, which she knew nothing about. I told her not to worry, I would call her after and fill her in.

Short notice, short deadlines

I arrived at the meeting early. There were about 10 people present. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative approached, introduced himself and asked if I or anyone I knew was impacted by floods. When I answered yes, he gave me his card and began to tell me that anyone impacted must fill out the FEMA application first to see if they qualify for relief benefits. 

This is important because it takes about two weeks to get results and they must collect the data because time is running out for those with hotel vouchers. FEMA has until mid-April to gather all the information, assess the damage and figure out the cost. The application is online.

My first question was, what took FEMA so long when the flooding was four weeks ago? He explained that the governor of California had to proclaim a state of emergency and notify the federal government; once the federal government got the okay, the FEMA team came the next day to begin assessing the damage.

More people began to arrive, and the monitor displayed people online for this hybrid meeting. I took the FEMA rep’s card and went to take a seat; the meeting was about to start. 

I sat next to a young woman who was affected. She told me her story. Ms. Walker was a student attending Mesa College who lives with her grandmother, sister and two-year-old nephew in a complex close to San Diego State University (SDSU).

“Early morning on Jan. 21, I heard something that sounded like faucet water running, and suddenly the pressure of the water broke the patio glass doors and came rushing into the apartment. The water rose up to my waist,” she explained. “Luckily, my grandmother was upstairs. The force was so hard it knocked over appliances.” 

She showed me some pictures from her phone. Everything was floating. It was terrifying.

Ms. Walker said there was a fire truck across the street, but no one came, so she called for help. She called the Red Cross several times and spoke to a real person who was friendly and supportive; she gave her location and explained what was happening – most importantly, that her 80-year-old grandmother was stuck upstairs. They said help was on the way. 

No one came. 

The building maintenance person came to their rescue and helped her family out. When Ms. Walker got out, she saw that her car was flooded. She had just purchased the car six months before; she called the dealer, who said that the insurance does not cover floods. She was worried about the $36,000 note for the car that was totally damaged.  

When the meeting started, Walker was the first to tell her story. It was hard for her to conceal tears when she spoke of her grandmother, who left all her possessions and is staying in a hotel far from her home.

Echoes of Katrina

There were many such stories. Another extended family lost a son/grandson to suicide. The trauma was too much. His mother and grandmother are staying in a hotel while grieving the loss of a loved one. Grandma is also having medical problems due to her exposure to mold and mildew.

Many people asked what to do since the 30-day deadline is nearly up. FEMA reps responded that “many will qualify for an extension” and urged them to file an application ASAP because it could take up to two weeks to find out if you qualify.

One flood victim whispered, “This reminds me of Katrina.” I nodded in agreement as I recalled the 2021 winter snowstorm in Texas when there was no electricity, gas, or running water for a week. I was staying in an apartment there; no one knocked on my door to ask if I was okay. People died in their cars, charging cell phones and trying to keep warm, while temperatures dropped below freezing.

Several speakers addressed the need for volunteers to help clear up mildew and put up walls so that families can return to their homes as soon as possible.

One of the speakers from the Office of Disaster Relief Center spoke of low-interest loans to cover expenses that exceed the amount granted by FEMA. He said most homeowners would qualify for $25,000, but any more will require some collateral. He emphasized that loans will not be forgiven and must be paid back. 

A senior homeowner asked, “How am I supposed to qualify or even pay off a loan on a fixed income?”

There were many questions. Most responses were complicated and ended with “We need to get the data … fill out the FEMA application online to see if you qualify.”

What about those who don’t have a computer? “Call us and we will help.” What if you can’t get through? Will FEMA go door to door to check on people, especially elders who may still be in their homes, unable or unwilling to leave? How do people find out about FEMA when they are in hotel rooms and FEMA reps are in the lobby? Has FEMA contacted local officials to find out where the flood victims are so they can go to them instead of the other way around?

Rep. Juan Vargas was the only local official that sent a representative to the meeting to assure everyone that his office is doing all that can be done to find a solution.

It was sad, and hard to listen to the stories of those impacted who came to the meeting.

Grassroots organizations fill void

A good thing was the outpouring of grassroots, community, and nonprofit organizations that were present and ready to serve. 

The Black Panther Party, Association of Raza Educators and many more volunteered to work together to clear out debris, remove mold and mildew, rebuild walls, and deliver food and clothing, even though they know beyond a doubt that this may have been avoided if the city cleaned out the drains, swept the streets, and did the jobs that their property taxes are supposed to pay for.

They know that this country’s rulers continue to spend billions of dollars on imperialist wars and occupations while whining about there being no money to repair homes, provide housing, health care (mental and physical), means of releasing stress, transportation, and food vouchers for all at no cost.

It is not the people’s fault, and certainly not the fault of the homeless. 

The rain is not over. More rain is forecast soon.

What should be done by the state and federal government is being done as much as possible by ordinary people working together to help their neighbors.

This is another example of why we must abolish capitalism and fight for socialism. We must fight for a better world.

All power to the people!

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