Battered Merced residents confront twin threats: Pounding storms and persistent thieves

A car is submerged in floodwater up to its windows. Another flooded car and a row of townhouses are in the background.
Floodwaters course through a neighborhood in Merced during a series of storms and subsequent flooding in January.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

In recent weeks, Merced neighbors Mariya Nelson and Beth Lee took on more than just rebuilding their storm-battered homes.

After a series of break-ins, they’re now the de facto neighborhood watch for a well-to-do strip of homes that runs along a road abutting Bear Creek, which has flooded multiple times in recent weeks during California’s series of storms.

They were forced from their homes in early January when more than 3 feet of water displaced them.


Then came the burglaries. Nelson, 33, counts at least seven attempts on her home.

California continues to deal with damage from March storms: surging rivers, mudslides, breached levees and displacement in flooded towns.

March 12, 2023

“We got hit hard,” she said.

Rain and strong winds inundated Merced on Tuesday, with some areas under an evacuation warning and the threat of more damage on the horizon. Sandbags line the entryway of Nelson’s home, and a tarp covers a portion of the roof, which collapsed in recent downpours.

She said she’d been in this house “almost 25 years, and we’ve never ever had anybody break in.” Now, with another evacuation warning issued for her neighborhood, Nelson saw break-in attempts increase.

Nelson said a would-be thief parked in her driveway Tuesday morning in daylight and approached her house. The individual only ran away, she said, when she appeared at the door.

“My house is full of kids,” she added, and she fears for their safety.

Lee, 53, is no stranger to disaster. She lost her previous house in the 2020 Creek fire and used the insurance proceeds to buy her current home.

The defense attorney currently resides in a rental while her home is being repaired. But she said recent break-ins, coupled with the flood warnings, spurred her to stay home.

She counts at least nine break-in attempts in the last two months.

“We started putting the house back together” after the last flood “and had to stop again” due to the recent flood warning, she said.


Now the house is empty, and two storage pods in the driveway hold her possessions — or they did, before burglars managed to get into them and take what they could.

When she bought this house on the river, Lee knew it was in a flood zone, but she said she reasoned with herself that “we were in a drought.”

Reflecting on the experience of suffering a catastrophic fire and then a flood within three years, she shrugged. “I guess this is climate change?”

Nearby, at the Merced County fairground, two large gymnasiums were converted into emergency shelters for those displaced by storms.

All 200 of the available beds were empty Tuesday evening. John Ceccoli, a spokesman for the Merced County Human Services Agency, said the facility had seen a maximum of 36 people at once since reopening last week.

More than 600 people stayed at the facility during heavy storms in January, he added. As sheets of rain came down outside Tuesday afternoon, workers wondered whether another flood was coming.


“I’ve never tracked the weather so closely in my life,” Ceccoli said.

In nearby Planada, El Gallito bakery has stayed open through a handful of storms.

The bakery was flooded along with the town in late January. Now the store’s doors are protected by sandbags and tarps, and the family who runs it has worked to flood-proof their home as well. Appliances damaged by floodwaters — more than a foot high and containing sewage — have mostly been replaced, thanks in part to community support on GoFundMe.

A pantry at the front of the store is notably top-heavy, with the bottom shelves mostly empty. Every day at closing time, the family members remove goods from the bottom shelves and place them on the counters, wary of losing inventory again.

Keeping the business going is essential, said Leonardo Villagomez, son of owners Luis and Estella Villagomez.

The family needs the income.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes contributed to this report.