Recurring San Diego floods impact predominantly Latino neighborhoods

A man hikes through the empty Chollas Creek storm channel that once overflowed on Jan. 22, causing damage to nearby homes in San Diego, Ca., on Thursday, July 4, 2024. ELIZABETH JAZLYN DIEGUEZ/LATINO REPORTER

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Alondra Mojica paid little attention to the flood warning issued by the Emergency Alert System. She opted to stay in the comfort of her childhood bedroom, assuming the rain would pass and allow her to drive to her apartment at the University of California-Riverside. 

However, the fear in her mother’s voice jolted her out of bed that Monday morning.

“Alondra, get up! The water is coming inside,” she recalled.

On Jan. 22, a heavy rainstorm caused widespread flooding across southern California, significantly impacting predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods in San Diego, including Southcrest, Encanto and Logan Heights. According to the National Weather Service, the storm was the fourth wettest day on record in San Diego since 1850.

Firefighters rescued hundreds of residents, including Mojica and her mother, from their flooded homes, leaving them to helplessly watch as murky stormwater surged into their vehicles.

Other floods have impacted the community in recent years. In December 2018, an overflowing canal connected to Chollas Creek left Mojica’s Grant Hill neighborhood flooded once again. The watershed extends 30 miles across southeastern San Diego, passing through neighborhoods, parks and commercial zones.

A study published in 2023 by Headwaters Economics and the Hispanic Access Foundation revealed that 44% of Latinos living throughout the United States are located in high flood-risk counties compared to 35% of non-Latinos. In addition, Latinos often face challenges when seeking federal disaster aid because of limited access to information or mistrust in government assistance, resulting in them missing out on financial support.

Dr. Zhi-Yong Yin, a professor of environmental and ocean sciences at the University of San Diego, explained that flooding occurs when soil becomes oversaturated with water from heavy rainfall. Building structures and pavement surfaces can worsen flooding by preventing water from filtering out, leaving residents in low-lying areas vulnerable to water accumulation.

Since the 2018 flood, Grant Hill residents have persistently asked the city to unclog trash visibly collected in their neighborhood storm drain, especially weeks before rainstorms occur. But, neighbors said the storm drain continued to be neglected. 

On the day of the catastrophic flood, Mojica’s family and friends, along with six neighbors, submerged themselves in chest-deep waters to clear the storm drain with a pick and shovel. 

Other community members in Latino neighborhoods have followed suit, feeling the need to take matters into their own hands.

A flood-damaged car sits in front of a Grant Hill property, six months after the Jan. 22 flood in San Diego, Ca., on Thursday, July 4, 2024. ELIZABETH JAZLYN DIEGUEZ/LATINO REPORTER

Herencia Hispana San Diego, a nonprofit organization, is actively working alongside other groups to assist underserved Latino neighborhoods in need of immediate aid. Since the flood, the organization has provided community members with groceries, hygienic care products and hot meals, including tamales, rice and beans.

“It gives you a sense of accomplishment … seeing that you’re meeting a basic need at the time that it’s happening,” said Francisco Javier Muñoz, secretary of Herencia Hispana San Diego. 

According to Muñoz, the nonprofit has served roughly 20,000 hot plates to those who are still homeless and in precarious financial situations since the flood. They remain committed to providing ongoing support, up to an additional four months, to those who have lost everything.

Mercy Sosa, a San Diego native whose family home flooded while attending Sacramento State, noted that her neighbors have continued to support one another by sharing community resources, including information on how to access aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

In a release published in April, FEMA said the agency and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services have reportedly distributed over $20 million in disaster recovery assistance to those impacted by the Jan. 22 flood. 

The funds, which are evaluated and disbursed on a case-by-case basis, are expected to cover short-term rental assistance, home repair costs, medical expenses and lost personal possessions. Regardless of citizenship and immigration status, all individuals affected by the flood could apply for financial aid assistance, with a cap of $42,500 per household, until the April 19 deadline.

Sosa, Mojica and many San Diego residents sought assistance because they didn’t have flood insurance coverage. This was either because their homeowner insurance required the purchase of a separate policy or because they never had flood insurance.

However, Sosa revealed that FEMA had only granted her family $12,000, an insufficient allowance intended to repair the flooring in her childhood bedroom, replace her bed, install a backyard drainage system, purchase a new car and more. Her family was forced to take out $25,000 in loans to cover additional repair costs.

“We still have bills we have to pay for … that takes time and money out of our pocket to put into (repairs) despite whatever assistance that we’re getting,” Sosa said.

As San Diego neighborhoods grow increasingly frustrated with the city and county, they are now taking legal action. Since May 5, nearly 300 residents have joined a civil lawsuit against the city, seeking $100 million in damages for alleged failure to regulate storm drains and channels.

Flood attorney Evan Walker, who previously sued the city for the December 2018 flood, represents former and new clients once again.

“I saw (the flood damage) firsthand, and I knew it was such a catastrophic affair,” Walker said. “It was the same thing we saw in 2018, just magnitudes higher.”  

Walker said he is in the final stages of filing new lawsuits against the County of San Diego and National City. Given that Chollas Creek is managed and operated by various entities alongside the city and county, they are each responsible for maintaining the flood channels within their respective areas. The lawsuits are expected to represent over 500 clients who have been affected by the Jan. 22 flood.

Grant Hill homes residing along the Chollas Creek lost their personal belongings to the Jan. 22 flood in San Diego, Ca., on Thursday, July 4, 2024. ELIZABETH JAZLYN DIEGUEZ/LATINO REPORTER

Community members have also sought assistance from the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, a nonprofit organization offering free legal services to help residents understand their rights and responsibilities under the law. Some of their services include direct representation, policy work, legal advocacy and more.

In an effort to provide accurate and reliable legal information, legal aid society housing experts created a public emergency resource guide in English and Spanish to help tenants and landlords understand the legal implications of the flood. The site, featuring guides and templates, is also regularly updated with new state laws to keep residents informed of any changes.

“In times of crisis, the public, especially Spanish speakers, can be an easy target for scams,” said Lorena Slomanson, the outreach and community relations manager of the nonprofit. “We worked with elected officials and our community partners to make sure that we had a very far reach in terms of getting this important information out to those who needed it.”

As community members continue to seek legal services after the flood, the city has yet to submit an official response to the lawsuit filed against it.

In a written statement, the City of San Diego’s Public Safety Media Services Manager José Ysea said the city has “provided many resources since the Jan. 22 storm, including resources that have come from many different departments.” 

The statement also highlighted the city’s heavy reliance on receiving funding from regional, state, and federal agencies and partners, which is directed at aiding residents and rehabilitating the community.

For San Diego’s Latino community, the healing process continues. 

While some residents prepare to seek legal justice, families like the Mojicas and Sosas remain focused on returning to their new normal.

“It’s been a bit rough but we’re just trying to get through it,” Mojica said. “We’re almost there to get our old home.”

Her family currently lives on their landlord’s property just across the street from their house. They are waiting for the kitchen and flooring repairs to be finished so they can move back into their home of over 30 years.

Although the future holds uncertainty of whether flooding will continue to impact their beloved community, its members will continue to rely on one another for support. 

Elizabeth Jazlyn Dieguez is a recent journalism graduate from San Diego State University. She is a California Student Journalism Corps reporter at EdSource and aspires to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. Reach her at or on X at @Elizabeth Dieguez.

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