Staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could be on the ground in Monterey County as soon as Thursday as the Pajaro community and other areas impacted by storms in March continue their long recovery, county officials said at a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon.

A Presidential Major Disaster Declaration signed by President Joe Biden on Monday allowed FEMA officials to start the process of embedding staff in the local assistance center at the Watsonville Veterans Memorial building.

The center will be staffed with personnel from FEMA as well as the Small Business Administration, the state Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and Monterey County Department of Emergency Management.

The shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville will stay open until long-term housing options are made available, said Nicholas Pasculli, a county spokesman, who sought to address what he said was inaccurate information circulating in the community. As of Tuesday night, 162 people were staying at the shelter. Free transportation remains available from Salinas-Monterey Transit to and from Pajaro to continue cleanup for those residents.

“We want to dispel these rumors. The shelter is not closing,” Pasculli said.

More relief services planned

County officials are also in the process of finding a location in Salinas to open a second recovery center that will be more centrally located to offer assistance to residents in other areas of the county, including Arroyo Seco and the Salinas River corridor.

A community resources center that will offer a central location to access services from community nonprofits is also expected to open in the coming days in Pajaro, but the location remains undetermined.

Nearly 700 households have already sought assistance through the local recovery center and demand is increasing, said Daniel Gonzales, a county emergency services planner. He said demand for services from the Mexican consulate was growing for people who need help replacing identity documents. A visit from consulate staff to the local assistance center is scheduled for April 29.

Debris sweeps continue and residents are still encouraged to put storm-related waste, unbagged, on their front curb. About 4,500 tons of debris has been removed. The county has a goal of ending the debris removal by the end of April, said Laura Emmons, a county emergency planner.

Help for renters

The local assistance center at the Veterans building will be closed this weekend because of Easter. It will close at 7 p.m. Friday and reopen Monday at 9 a.m.

Free legal clinics will be held at Ramsey Park Family Center on Thursday, as well as April 13 and April 20. The two-hour clinics will be held from 3-5 p.m. and from 5-7 p.m. to help connect renters with legal resources and work with landlords to identify ways to make repairs to their property and make sure they know their renters’ rights.

“Most people have paid their March rent and the disaster took place on March 10, so that leaves two-thirds of the month that the place was uninhabitable. So, how do we resolve that? …”

Lejla Bratovic, Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County

Lejla Bratovic, executive director of Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County, a legal aid group, said that the eviction moratorium passed by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors this month can serve as a legal defense against eviction but it does not eliminate the need to pay rent and only applies on a case-by-case basis for those who have directly lost income as a result of the storm.

But she said rent should be credited for the period when homes were uninhabitable.

“Most people have paid their March rent and the disaster took place on March 10, so that leaves two-thirds of the month that the place was uninhabitable. So, how do we resolve that? And that’s going to be a lot of that communication directly with the landlords and making those plans and agreements,” Bratovic said.