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In areas of California hit by storms, some undocumented residents can't get FEMA aid


Nine atmospheric rivers pummeled California in the last month. Much of the damage was concentrated on the coast, but the storms were so powerful that they also hit farm workers a hundred miles inland. As the state begins to recover, many undocumented residents are struggling to access assistance. Vanessa Rancano from member station KQED reports.

VANESSA RANCANO, BYLINE: Husband and wife Rufino and Esmeralda came to the rural Central Valley town of Planada 15 years ago in search of better opportunities. They asked that we use only their first names because they're undocumented and fear deportation. They worked in the local field - almonds, grapes, figs, tomatoes. They saved up to start a small business selling popsicles and snacks. The flood took out everything - their livelihood and much of their home.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: Rufino stands in his driveway, assessing the mold starting to grow on the still-damp seats of his ice cream truck.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: He says the water destroyed five commercial freezers full of merchandise plus the truck - around $23,000 in damage. Inside the house, Esmeralda points out cabinet drawers warped from the water.

ESMERALDA: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: For now, Rufino and Esmeralda have moved into an apartment at a migrant farmworker housing complex on the edge of town. They're among 40 families temporarily relocated there. Like many other undocumented immigrants in Planada, they still haven't gotten significant financial help. Overall, early estimates showed nearly a quarter of homes here were damaged.


RANCANO: All day, people drive down the main street in trucks loaded with beds, sofas, refrigerators. They unload everything into dumpsters lining the road.

ALICIA RODRIGUEZ: All these dumpsters have people's lives in it.

RANCANO: From the sidewalk, longtime resident Alicia Rodriguez looks on. The losses are especially painful for a community where the poverty rate is almost three times higher than the state as a whole. Rodriguez is one of the local volunteers collecting and distributing donations.

RODRIGUEZ: Clothes, socks, shoes.

RANCANO: She's running a makeshift resource center out of a vacant commercial space.

RODRIGUEZ: Air mattresses for those that are sleeping on the floor - we're going to be doing microwaves.

RANCANO: But the big help, the kind that will rebuild a damaged home and replace its contents, that's left to private insurance or federal disaster assistance from FEMA. And Rodriguez says many residents here can't turn to either because to get help from FEMA, you need a Social Security number.

RODRIGUEZ: They're slipping through the cracks.

RANCANO: Local leaders estimate as many as half of residents in Planada are undocumented.

RODRIGUEZ: What I see here is that a lot of them are not going to probably get the FEMA because they're not applying.

RANCANO: Federal and local officials say undocumented residents can get help as long as someone in the home has a valid Social Security number. Often, that means U.S.-born kids.

SHARON WARDALE-TREJO: We strongly encourage those individuals to take advantage of the opportunity and come open a claim.

RANCANO: Sharon Wardale-Trejo is a Merced County spokesperson who's been trying to get that message out. In the first two days after FEMA opened a recovery center in Planada, she says a total of 45 households filed claims. She sees that as progress.

WARDALE-TREJO: So we're seeing an incremental increase as probably the word gets out there that, hey, you know what? It was OK, and they were able to help me.

RANCANO: But for some, that help is out of reach. In what's left of Rufino and Esmeralda's living room, they point out their son Jesus' high school diploma, one precious possession the flood waters spared.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: Jesus is a freshman at UC Berkeley, in many ways living out the promise that brought them to this country. But their American-born son can't help them here. Because he's no longer living at home, they can't use his Social Security number to apply for aid.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: Rufino says he's the reason they want support - to help him get ahead. They tried multiple times to get help from FEMA and the Small Business Administration, but got turned away.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: If they can't get aid, he says, they'll have no choice but to go back to working in the fields.

RUFINO: (Speaking Spanish).

RANCANO: They'll keep looking for help. They were told to turn to charitable organizations, but so far, he says, all they've gotten is a $250 gift card.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Rancano in Planada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.