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Central Coast officials push for more federal aid after storm, but some residents are skeptical

carbajal union valley
Benjamin Purper
Rep. Carbajal looks up at where the Union Valley Parkway sinkhole formed during this month's storms.

The North Santa Barbara County communities of Santa Maria, Orcutt and Guadalupe were hit hard by the winter storm. No major injuries or deaths have been reported, but many people are still displaced after flooding damaged their homes.

Residents in one Santa Maria neighborhood hit hard by the storm are hopeful they’ll get federal assistance to rebuild — and others aren’t so sure it will happen.

Union Valley Parkway and Bradley Road is a busy intersection on the border of Santa Maria and Orcutt. A sinkhole opened up Union Valley during the worst of the storm last Monday, suddenly unleashing a massive flood onto the neighborhood below.

Nancy Garcia owns a home in Hibiscus Court, directly below where the sinkhole formed. She rents out the house to two single moms and their children, who found themselves suddenly overwhelmed with water.

“Quickly it escalated to firefighters knocking on their door telling everybody, yelling [that] everybody needs to get out. Everybody et out quickly," Garcia said.

Garcia said the families were able to leave the house in time, but are still displaced as the house is now unlivable. She said she’s grateful no one got hurt, but she’s also unsure of what the future holds, or if her insurance will cover the damage.

hibiscus court
Benjamin Purper
Hibiscus Court in Santa Maria saw major damage from this month's storm.

"I don't know what's gonna happen now, I don't know what's gonna happen with me. I'll figure it out. I'm glad and grateful and thankful to God nobody was hurt — that is first and foremost," she said.

People all over the Central Coast are in situations like Garcia’s. They’re not sure if insurance will cover their damaged homes and property, or when that could happen.

Local officials are urging the Biden Administration to declare a major disaster declaration for the Central Coast counties, which the president has already done for Santa Cruz, Merced and Sacramento Counties. That declaration would open up individual residents and businesses to direct aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to rebuild and recover.

At Hibiscus Court Tuesday morning, Congressman Salud Carbajal told residents he’s working on it.

“[Federal inspectors are] doing assessments now, here in the county and in all the counties throughout the state of California., so that then they could request that the major emergency declaration to include Santa Barbara County. And by doing that, then all that assistance that we're talking about becomes available to you all," Carbajal said.

Carbajal also said he’s pushing for the California Insurance Commissioner to help him pressure insurance companies into approving claims for people in areas like this. He said he believes the FEMA inspectors will help approve SLO, Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties for federal aid, which he said could happen as early as this week.

Congressman Salud Carbajal and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Bob Nelson meet with Santa Maria resident Eric Garcia.
Benjamin Purper
Congressman Salud Carbajal and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Bob Nelson meet with Santa Maria resident Eric Garcia.

But one Hibiscus Court resident whose house was ruined, Nathan Hugh, said he’s not that optimistic.

"The county's waiting for the state, the state's waiting for the federal government. And they don't even know if they can declare this a disaster, if they're going to make any money available at all," Hugh said.

Hugh said he feels the sinkhole failure on Union Valley Parkway was from poor design and poor maintenance by local governments and the state.

“You know, they spent a lot of money on the overpass. The future was for this to be an artery, but when they put it in, this is the result. And to see 12-foot berms just evaporate in a road in a matter of minutes — [it's] kind of scary," Hugh said.

Hugh said he doesn’t want to be in this position where he’s forced to ask for help to repair and recover, but that he needs it — and he’s not confident he’s going to get it.

“So, are we going to be left to our own resources? [I] pretty much think we're going to be left on our own," he said.

FEMA inspectors are still assessing damage throughout the Central Coast, and President Biden will reportedly tour parts of the region this week. Still, it’s not clear what federal aid will come from that.

Updated: January 18, 2023 at 12:15 PM PST
President Biden has now added SLO, Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties to the list of counties approved for direct FEMA aid.
Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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