Evacuating Santa Cruz County’s homeless amid disaster presents a difficult task

SANTA CRUZ — When it comes to disaster response, the public’s immediate focus in the moment often is on safe evacuations.
Safe escape planning and timely evacuation notice were prominent among resident concerns expressed during a town hall meeting last month related to the dangers of mixing pending winter rainfall and the devastation wrought by the CZU August Lightning Complex fires. Santa Cruz County Assistant Director of Public Works Ken Edler said debris flows, the deadly masses of mud, rocks, boulders, entire trees, and sometimes vehicles and homes, often referred to as landslides or mudslides, move up to 30 mph. First responders cannot fight them in the same way they would a fire and evacuation are the most prudent response, authorities say.
“If you hear a debris flow coming, it’s too late,” said county senior civil engineer Carolyn Burke, stressing the importance of advanced notification and early evacuations.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff”s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said his office, which is in charge of, among other duties, coordinating residential evacuations, relies on experts to set action triggers. In the case of debris flows, they look to the National Weather Service, the county hydrologist and the county geologist to assess the impact to the area if it is hit with a significant rain event.
“We use those experts to come up with thresholds to be able to use that information to let you know if a weather event is coming, if it meets that threshold, and then go door to door,” Clark said. “So, our plan’s really contingent upon making sure not only are you paying attention to the information that’s going out but also folks are going to come door to door and let you know when it’s time to leave.”
But what local emergency evacuation planning exists where it comes to unsheltered homeless individuals?
Disaster planning
In the aftermath of the CZU fires, the Sentinel spoke with several local authorities familiar with or tasked with overseeing local disaster response planning. While some holistic countywide planning documents exist — the 2015 “draft” Santa Cruz County Operational Area Emergency Operations Plan — none of the published strategies focus on those already living outdoors without doors to knock on our landline phones to call.
County agencies, however, have created supplemental plans, several updated just last year, such as the county Human Services Department Shelter Management and Operations Plan, the Electrical Systems De-Energization Response Plan, the Regional Catastrophic Earthquake and the Winter Storm Response Plan. The plans are publicly posted online at co.santa-cruz.ca.us/Departments/EmergencyServices.aspx under the “OES Plans” link at the top of the page.
A large evacuation
In the city of Santa Cruz, where the vast majority of the documented homeless population countywide — sheltered and unsheltered — resides, homeless emergency response would require significant large-scale evacuation. When dry weather conditions and heightened fire threat coincided in the fall of 2018, the city fire chief ordered parks in the city’s greenbelt open space to be closed, a precursor to the city’s so-called Ross Camp behind the Gateway Plaza Shopping Center. In the past month, officials have been preparing for upcoming winter rains and potential river flooding and debris flows by moving homeless encampments to higher ground. The city’s only explicitly sanctioned outdoor encampment, run by the county, was recently moved to space outside the homeless shelter at the National Guard armory in DeLaveaga Park.
City spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith said a Santa Cruz Police Department team has been deployed to additional encampments to issue relocation notices, including in unsanctioned camps around San Lorenzo Park.
“We’ve been asking people to move from the flood zone up the hill,” Smith said last month. “That was one of the preparations that is happening and it was kicked off with moving the folks from the Benchlands and they are working along the riverbank right now and working to get folks up off of the flood plane into the other side of the park.”
Those living adjacent to the river in any winter face increased hazards, let alone this year, Smith said.
“We are concerned about the rains, whenever they come, bringing down lots of unknown hazards,” Smith said of riverside camps. “It is a phased approach because, frankly, we have limited staffing. We’re trying to do the notice and the outreach to let people know why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we’re asking people to move. Each time there’s outreach in a particular geographic area, we will give them a recommendation of – this is a direction that you can go that’s out of the floodplain, out of danger and in keeping with what we’re trying to do manage those outdoor areas as the rain comes.”
One of the most recent Santa Cruz camps to be given eviction notices was one that had grown up during the coronavirus pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, sitting between the river and Santa Cruz Memorial Cemetery, by way of Felker Street.
A sense of community
Brent Adams, an organizer of the nearby Footbridge Services, said he has worked to facilitate a sense of community at the camp, lobbying for regular city trash pickup service, distributing tents and trash bags to occupants.
Adams also has been leveraging his free storage and other service programs to extract “community agreements” from participants, wherever they call home. In particular, he has focused his efforts on encouraging those staying within quick walking distance of his Felker Street facility to follow basic rules of courtesy and trash cleanup.
However, as city authorities began planning for the evacuation last month, Adams said hoped not to lose the benefits of what he had seen grow up.
“We also began encouraging other community values to reduce theft and violence in the area, Adams wrote in a recent Facebook post about the pending move-out. “It’s been so successful that this camp has grown and self-informed new people in the camp.”
“Now, because of expected river water rise, this region is being closed. Where will people move to? How will they get there and how will they behave once they re-camp? These are things we’ve been working with them about,” Adams continued.
On a mid-November tour of the camp with a small group, Adams said he recognized the camp’s susceptibility to rising river water. Some people would not easily relocate, while others had left already, he said.
Moving to Pogonip
“The problem is, most of these people will probably be going to the Pogonip. These people are local Santa Cruz, for the most part. They grew up here. It’s not your downtown variety of homeless people who are sleeping in doorways – they know the area very well, they’ve been to the Pogonip before,” Adams said. “So there’s fire hazard now, so they can’t go there now and we have to wait for the moisture to occur. So there’s this gap, right?”
Clark told community members at the recent town hall meeting that an “uncomfortable truth” of public safety is that officers, too, have safety limitations.
“If people choose not to evacuate, it really can be extremely difficult for us to get in there to rescue you until the situation calms down,” Clark said. “If a debris flow were to happen and we did have to rescue people, it could be some time before we’re able to get you. That’s why heeding those warnings and leaving the area is just super important. Our ability or EMS or ambulance, their ability to get to you if you were to have a problem is going to be extremely limited until it’s safe for us to be able to get in there and do that.”

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