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Veterans and community step up to help Hollister evacuees

Communications problems between county government and community were offset by generosity and volunteerism of businesses, community members, and veterans.
Volunteers fold and sort donated clothing. Photo by John Chadwell.
Volunteer carries in supplies for Red Cross. Photo by John Chadwell.
The Veteran's Memorial Hall in Hollister re-opened for evacuees on Sunday night, Jan. 15. Photo by Noe Magana
The Veteran's Memorial Hall in Hollister re-opened for evacuees on Sunday night, Jan. 15. Photo by Noe Magaña

VFW Post 9242 members, their wives, local business, clubs and churches stepped up to help northern San Benito County flooding evacuees on Jan. 4, and again Jan. 16 and 17. Even as the mostly older vets and volunteers were doing what they could to provide comfort and meals for nearly two dozen displaced people, Bernie Ramirez, co-vice-chair of the VFW post, told BenitoLink he felt the county fell short in communication and support.

After receiving a call from Maria Spandri, manager of the Veterans Memorial building, Ramirez said the veterans from the VFW post and American Legion Post 69 showed up first to deliver cots and other supplies to the Red Cross. Later their wives came in to cook meals.

He said there was a serious lack of communication.

While he does speak Spanish, Ramirez said the Red Cross volunteers who were there the majority of the time by themselves did not. He said no one from the county showed up the first two days to help. Ramirez said many who live in the Lovers Lane area are field workers who do not speak English and when they evacuated and found their way to the Veterans Memorial building, no one could communicate with them.

He said initially there was no organized effort from the county.  

“When people are going to evacuate, they need to know exactly who’s going to run the show and how it’s going to be done,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s anyone to blame but the veterans came out and helped. They’re even there today [Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Day] helping and cooking tonight.” Martin Luther King Day is a holiday for government agencies. 

When the Red Cross volunteers signed in the evacuees on more than one occasion children acted as translators between them and their parents.

David Gutierrez, the local disaster action team leader who is a lifelong Hollister resident and a 20-year Red Cross volunteer, said while his mission is to provide food, a place to sleep, and basic necessities, the county has the overall responsibility for providing services. He said in the two days he was at the Veterans building, no one from the Office of Emergency Services (OES) showed up.

Gutierrez said he was also present during the 2018 floods and many who lived in the Lovers Lane area then and now didn’t want to leave their homes.

“When some people went back to their homes [in 2018] they had been broken into and they were robbed,” he said. “But I think most just don’t want to be out of the safety of their dwellings.”

“OES is not responsible for communication sharing during this incident to the community,” said Monica Leon, public information officer for the county, in an email. “They are actively working the incident from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).” Leon said her department is responsible for communications with the media and public.

On Jan 12, evacuees arrived at a closed Veterans Memorial Building, which had been the emergency shelter, to find a sign with phone numbers to various agencies. There was no reference to the Recreation Center, which opened as the emergency shelter Jan. 14 and was first announced via a Nixle notification at 5:29 p.m. that evening.

I just don’t get it why our community is experiencing so much confusion, frustration and disjointed approaches to this dire situation when the fact is that our community has experienced this crisis previously,” San Benito County Supervisor Bea Gonzalez said. “Didn’t we learn anything from the previous flood?” 

Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki said OES is “working very hard under extremely difficult circumstances” and “they are doing their best to help local victims get through this challenging time, and they are working around the clock to do so.” 

Leon said flood alerts and emergency notifications were posted on the county’s website, through Instagram, Facebook, Nixle, Code Red and reverse 911. All were based on the assumption that residents are monitoring them and that they can understand English. County personnel went door-to-door on Jan. 14 in the Lover’s Lane area handing out flyers in English and Spanish concerning possible evacuations.

Volunteers said it was a lack of Spanish-speaking officials that brought about the disconnect at the evacuation centers. 

“It really pissed me off that these people came in and nobody was there to instruct them what to do, where to go, and what’s going to happen,” Ramirez said. “These people are already being taken out of their homes, they don’t know what’s going on, and there’s nobody there to communicate. It’s just not right. I was the only one who could speak Spanish, so I helped people as much as I could and gave some my personal phone number so they could call me if they needed something.”

Spandri said despite the lack of communication with the county, veterans and the community came through. She said Jim Lewis, from Hollister High School, brought breakfast sandwiches, chicken and fries and Linda Lampe with Hollister Community Outreach supplied clothing. Several real estate agents contributed $1,000 gift cards to Target, T.J. Maxx and Ross.

“The Women’s Club gave me $1,000 for two families,” Spandri told BenitoLink. “Girl Scouts brought in fruits and games. Hollister Super provided dinner tonight. We had this very generous family that donated blankets, pillows and towels, and $500 in gift cards. Target donated 10 pillows. And the Community Food Bank has been very generous with produce and snacks.”

Related BenitoLink stories:

Pacheco Creek crests near San Felipe Road | BenitoLink

Veterans’ Memorial Building evacuation site closed as rain and flooding persists | BenitoLink

Mandatory evacuation in parts of North County | BenitoLink

County downgrades mandatory evacuations | BenitoLink

Residents and pets rescued along Lovers Lane | BenitoLink

Flood at Lover’s Lane brings mandatory evacuation order | BenitoLink

County issues evacuation warning for parts of north county | BenitoLink

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years' experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]