THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
February 2, 2023, 7:03AM
After more than 1,000 people flooded temporary recovery centers during January’s severe winter storms, Sonoma County supervisors have more than tripled the emergency assistance allocated last month for low-income residents.
On Tuesday, the board approved up to $1 million in disaster aid for qualifying individuals.
More than $600,000 is already spoken for by the 1,080 people who funneled through two hastily established storm recovery centers in Guerneville and Healdsburg and applied for help after wage loss and other weather-related impacts left them struggling economically the week of Jan. 15.
At the time, only $300,000 had been allocated for applicants under a pilot program that was developed and launched in 72 hours, in collaboration with community-based nonprofit partners, even as storms clouds still hovered overhead, said Alegría De La Cruz, director of the Sonoma County Office of Equity.
But the money was quickly outstripped by the number of people and the depth of their need — a result of lost work, food spoilage from extended power failures, evacuation costs, storm damage, school closures and a host of other issues tied to the string of atmospheric rivers that bombarded California from late December to Jan. 17.
De La Cruz and County Emergency Management Director Chris Godley told supervisors that, if limited to the $300,000 initially allocated by County Administrator Sheryl Bratton under board authority, they could fund the first 926 individuals to qualify.
But there would be only enough to pay what De La Cruz called an “undignified amount of assistance” to people who had waited for hours in long lines, hungry, often with children, and often in the cold and rain, sometimes returning a second day to disclose highly personal information.
Another 154 people who applied and qualified though funds were exhausted two days into the effort would go completely without, she said.
De La Cruz and Godley recommended the board approve additional funding — a total $628,750 — so all qualified applicants could receive the recommended allotment, mostly $600. The range was $250 to $800, based on severity of loss, determined by a point system.
But Supervisor Susan Gorin suggested the total be raised to $1 million so that further outreach could be conducted to people in her Sonoma Valley district, as well as southern Sonoma County, who might qualify for assistance.
“You did an amazing job,” she told Godley and De La Cruz, “and not good enough.”
Ultimately, her four board colleagues agreed, saying the money should be available to anyone in the county who meets income eligibility requirements and suffered qualifying storm-related losses. Initial efforts were aimed at disproportionately affected individuals in west and north county — areas most affected by power outages, school and road closures — particularly those ineligible for mainstream disaster aid geared toward property owners with significant storm damage.
Board Chairman Chris Coursey voted with the group only after noting that however much money was set aside, “the need is much greater than the resource.”
“It’s not sustainable, and it’s not going to take care of the need,” he said.
Coursey added that pressure should be put on state and federal governments to develop assistance programs for anyone left without work due to natural disasters, given the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events.
Some community advocates also have been vocal in calling for the wine industry to step up and play a greater role in supporting agricultural workers, many of whom were rained out of the vineyards for several weeks in January just as they expected to begin work in earnest after a lull in November and December.
“This is the second blow farmworkers have felt in the last six to seven weeks,” after a shortened grape harvest that reduced the savings on which most depend to get through the end of the year, said Zeke Guzmán, president of Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma.
Davin Cárdenas, director of organizing for North Bay Jobs With Justice, stood at the rostrum and looked mockingly around as if searching for industry representatives who had fled the room.
“Where did the grape growers go, and where is their support for employees in a time of desperate need?” he asked. “ … They’re absent.”
North Bay Jobs With Justice has been leading a movement to enhance worker protections for farm laborers through county policies that would include extra pay for those required to work in hazardous conditions, such as wildfire smoke. They also are lobbying for disaster insurance for low-wage workers subject to lost income due to wildfires, flooding and the sorts of natural disasters and extreme weather conditions expected to become increasingly frequent and severe as the effects of human-caused climate change intensify.
“It’s not going to go away,” Max Bell Alper, executive director of the organization, said in an interview. “This pattern that we’re experiencing around climate change is worsening. bringing wildfires, drought, punctuated by heavy floods and rains. And in all these issues, workers are put on the front lines.”
A total 423 people came to the Guerneville center for services, while 651 sought help in Healdsburg, and 36 received support through a help line for residents in remote, hard-hit coastal areas, officials said.
Almost 56% of applicants reported working in the agricultural sector, including a large number of vineyard workers who turned up in Healdsburg, where agricultural workers accounted for 81% of the overall number served, De La Cruz said.
Farmworker advocates and nonprofit workers assisting at the centers reported that some crews were driven to the sites in vans by vineyard management firms — an act one organizer likened to “Walmart, relying on the social safety net” to enable underpaid workers to survive.
“I realize there are small farms who are not able to do that, but there also are a lot of large corporations at play in the county who do have the resources to support their workers better than this,” Jeanette Pantoja, director of Sonoma County Community Organizations Active in Disaster, or COAD, said in an interview.
Supervisors did not address the issue of wineries during their three-hour session on disaster assistance Tuesday, but west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins on Wednesday reported calling Sonoma County Vintners association Executive Director Michael Haney about the potential for philanthropic contributions.
“I think that the statistics are very telling that agricultural workers were severely impacted by the storms and lack of work,” Hopkins said, “ … and I would hope that employers would step up and consider contributing to the program we’ve created.”
Haney in turn said he had made inquiries in mid-January on behalf of his organization to see if there were storm-related needs in the community and had not been told of any immediate needs.
But after learning from Hopkins about significant losses and the county’s effort to help, he said he planned immediately to see what part his member wineries might play through the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation and its Emergency Relief Fund, begun in the wake of the 2017 North Bay Fires.
The Sonoma County Winegrowers, a marketing commission under the California Department of Food and Agriculture, similarly has given almost $2 million to vineyard employees impacted by wildfires, flood and COVID from its vineyard employee resiliency fund, according to Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission President Karissa Kruse.
Kruse said via email that only full-time workers who reside in Sonoma County are eligible for fund assistance, but none was sought in the wake of recent storms.
“We did not do any direct outreach during the recent storms, because we were not hearing of any specific needs,” she wrote.
Coursey on Wednesday said he would welcome contributions from the wine industry or anyone else but said there needed to a more sustainable, reliable safety net for hourly workers from every walk of life — one as commonplace on the landscape as unemployment insurance.
“We have relief for people who are laid off,” he said. “We don’t have a system that pays those who lose their work in a disaster — vineyard workers, roofers, bus people, house cleaners. It’s all these kinds of people who the only way they get money is if they work, and if they can’t work, they don’t have a big cushion.”
COAD, a network of community nonprofit groups, and some of its anchor organizations helped develop and staff the pilot program centers, a first-of-its-kind effort Pantoja lauded during Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting as an example of leadership toward a more equitable emergency management approach.
For some of the 40 or so people in the room, many holding placards or wearing North Bay Jobs With Justice shirts, the fear and anxiety over paying February rent and feeding their families overrode any sense of joy. Several wept as they spoke to the board, most in Spanish, about their struggles over the past month.
De La Cruz told supervisors that “the hunger” among those waiting for intake interviews at the storm recovery centers “was really palpable.”
Food boxes and hot meals supplied by nonprofit partners were quickly snapped up.
De La Cruz and Godley said the board’s approval of additional funds meant cash cards would soon be going out in the mail to those who already have qualified for assistance.
The county still has to establish how, when and where to distribute the unexpected $371,250 approved by the board.