By Aurora Saldivar, Coachella Unincorporated
MECCA, Calif. – Instead of working with children in Duroville’s after-school program as she usually does, Sister Teresita Navarro spent Tuesday evening knocking on doors at the trailer park to check on the well being of the families that live there.
Earlier that morning, a massive storm dumped more than five inches of rain, leaving hundreds without electricity and many without a safe place to sleep. Neighboring trailer parks in the Mecca area, including St. Anthony’s Trailer Park, were also flooded and are also in need of assistance.
“Everything was blocked or barricaded, the water was just a lake,” said Navarro. Residents, she said, were wading through knee-high muddy water to get around the trailer park.
The park, which has been plagued with numerous infrastructural and environmental problems over the years, is managed by Tom Foley, a court-appointed receiver.
Foley said that County Supervisor John Benoit is trying to have the affected areas declared a disaster zone in order to benefit from government funds for emergency repairs. Although it appears water has settled under many of the trailer units, the extent of the damage and erosion is unknown. Inspections are currently underway.
The fire department and department of health were also on the scene to help Tuesday evening.
“The emergency services were quick to respond, they had no more notice than the rest of us,” said Foley. “The fire department and emergency services have been out here since dawn.”
Tuesday night, the American Red Cross set up a makeshift shelter at Desert Mirage High School’s gym for families unable to return to their homes in the flooded areas. Although many families preferred to remain in their residences, they are being encouraged to visit the shelter for food, supplies and showers.
However, only two families spent Wednesday night. Navarro fears that if sufficient families do not utilize these resources, the American Red Cross might be forced to leave the area. Outreach to the smaller area trailer parks, where families may not know about the shelter, is critical.
Families have been told not to drink, cook, or shower with water from the park’s supply due to possible pesticide contamination from agricultural overflow. Coca Cola, Las Palmitas Elementary, Desert Mirage High School and Xavier College Prep have donated water bottles, the most urgent need at this moment.
“They are assuming that it is contaminated,” said Navarro, as a water district representative walks by. “They promised that they are going to come with a water truck, and they are still working on logistics of how to bring the water on to the site.”
Officials are waiting on results of water testing before allowing residents to use the water. The results are expected September 13.
Dr. Ruiz, a local emergency room physician who is running for Congress, also rolled up his sleeves to assist in the efforts. Ruiz received a phone call Tuesday afternoon from a community member notifying him about the flooding conditions at Duroville.
“It is always important to have communication and collaboration,” said Ruiz, who is experienced in disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. Ruiz called for a community meeting Wednesday morning to engage the community and decide which steps should be taken to assist the residents. Supervisor Benoit, relief organizations, and residents attended the meeting.
Ruiz said the goal of the meeting was to “ensure that the best disaster response is given, one that residents deserve.”
“You don’t want to be coming up with the plan during the crisis,” said Ruiz, who wants make sure there are procedures in place for future emergencies. “You have to be ready when disaster hits.”
Ruiz explained some of the possible health risks, including E. coli in human waste, which can pose problems, especially for elderly.
“The sewage system easily overflowed because of the immense poverty in area,” said Ruiz. “Standing water also attracts mosquitos, that in this area have been known to carry West Nile virus which could be very harmful to people.”
Foley, the court-appointed receiver, is concerned for the already struggling residents, asking, “It could have been a lot worse, but why did this have to happen here?”
Bonita Kelsey of the Salvation Army served hot lunch to about 100 people Tuesday, with plans to return later that evening to serve dinner and distribute more water bottles.
“For us we were just assessing the needs, it’s hard to get a sense of what the needs are from just watching the news,” said Kelsey. “We are here to just help in any way we can (by) just providing those basic necessities that all people should have access to.”
Kelsey, who recently moved to the Coachella Valley, was under the impression through media reports that this park was much smaller. She was shocked to learn there are 195 occupied units in Duroville.
She said this experience has made her want to bring more help to this end of the valley, asking, “How can we make you more sustainable? What can we do to provide a better situation so that you can thrive?”
The outpouring of assistance from the surrounding community has made a big difference for the affected trailer parks.
“The true heroes in this disaster response came from individuals who came to help,” said Ruiz, who grew up in nearby Coachella. “It was incredible to witness neighbors opening up their homes to each other. The continued resolve of these residents living under the harshest living conditions, this sense of community, that is the beauty of America made manifest.”
To join in the effort, community members are asked to contact the American Red Cross at (714) 398-2203 or Salvation Army at (760) 324-2275.