The Federal Emergency Management Agency has earmarked disaster funds for all counties in the greater Bay Area impacted by the atmospheric rivers that have pummeled the region, but only Santa Cruz County has reached the FEMA threshold for assistance to individual residents impacted by the rains.

It all comes down to FEMA monetary “thresholds” that need to be met in order to qualify, which can vary.

Robert Barker, spokesperson for FEMA, said that ultimately it comes down to the state deciding if individuals in counties should receive relief funds, and that the agency is currently on the ground assessing impacts all over Northern California in coordination with state officials and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

“We all have to go collectively to visit and basically see in person the homes affected,” Barker said. “What’s more than likely going to happen is things will be added over time after the damage is tabulated. It’s a process that can only go at a certain speed.”

Biden tours storm damage

President Joe Biden on Thursday visited Santa Cruz County to survey the damage in person. FEMA funding for individuals and businesses was approved for the county last Saturday.

Biden landed in Air Force One at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View around midday, then went to Watsonville Municipal Airport and took a helicopter tour from there of the areas along the coast and elsewhere that had flooding, mudslides and other impacts from the series of storms that started in late December.

Santa Cruz County was among the hardest-hit parts of California from the wet and windy weather, with estimated damage to its public infrastructure in excess of $55 million and 1,000 homes affected.

President Joe Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom listen as a California State Parks worker gives an update on storm damage to Seacliff State Beach on Jan. 19, 2023. (Photo via The White House/Twitter)

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, speaking to reporters on Air Force One earlier Thursday, said a lot of the coastal impact during the storms was caused by loose timber left behind from devastating wildfires in 2020 that washed out to sea, but then crashed back ashore in heavy surf, damaging infrastructure like the Capitola Wharf and Seacliff State Beach in Aptos.

Biden during his visit to the region was joined by Gov. Gavin Newsom, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, and other federal, state and local officials, and he also met with first responders, business owners and local residents in both Capitola and Aptos.

According to pool media reports, the president walked through Capitola and spoke with the owner of Paradise Beach Grille who talked about how waves rolled through the town during the storms. He then toured Seacliff State Beach and spoke about the impacts from the storms.

“It was devastating here what happened,” Biden said of the damage, vowing that federal agencies would help the region rebuild. “We are not leaving until you build back and build back better.”

Hidden costs loom for storm victims

Monetary impacts to residents don’t just include damage to their property. They can mean lost wages, childcare costs due to schools being closed, costs associated with being without power for extended periods of time, and job losses, to name a few.

Hard-hit coastal counties such as Monterey, Marin and Sonoma have racked up millions in damage so far, with more to come as recovery efforts continue. Yet individuals in those counties have not yet been offered federal funds.

“More counties will likely be added for individual assistance, public assistance,” said Barker, “but we just don’t know how many; the door has not shut yet. We are still doing all these assessments every single day.”

Once FEMA collects its data it goes back to the state, which then prioritizes things and makes support requests by county, Barker said.

Monterey County has incurred $30 million in infrastructure damages so far, according to county spokesperson Maia Carroll. The agricultural industry in the county is facing between $40 and $50 million in losses as well, she said.

“More counties will likely be added for individual assistance, public assistance, but we just don’t know how many; the door has not shut yet. We are still doing all these assessments every single day.”

Robert Barker, FEMA spokesperson

The county underwent multiple evacuations as levees were breached and waters rose around the Salinas River. Similar evacuations occurred near the Las Lomas area and near the Carmel River.

In Marin County, costs have hit at least $11 million, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

Sonoma County has so far incurred at least $13 million in damage and has greenlit its own funds to help residents with its new Recovery Support Centers that connect people to benefits and other assistance.

Bay City News staff writer Dan McMenamin contributed to this story.

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.