Palo Alto under water

Battered by heavy rains, the Midpeninsula copes with the biggest floods in memory

As gray daylight broke over the area Tuesday, local officials were assessing the extent of flood damage after a night of torrential rain that sent water over the banks of San Francisquito Creek, stranding people in their homes and closing down many of the area's main traffic arteries.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, and the latter was almost cut off from the rest of the Peninsula when University Avenue, Embarcadero Road and Oregon Expressway all were closed east of Middlefield Road.

The city of Palo Alto declared a state of emergency at 10:15 p.m. on Monday, when Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva drew City Manager June Fleming out of the City Council meeting to help supervise an Emergency Control Center in the basement of City Hall. Stanford activated its Emergency Control Center at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Emergency services crews worked through the night to rescue people stranded in their homes and cars. Several hundred people were evacuated from homes close to San Francisquito Creek, Matadero Creek and Barron Creek that were in danger of flooding, said Palo Alto Battalion Chief Phil Constantino.

Evacuees were taken in school buses to Cubberley Community Center, where the Red Cross set up an emergency shelter large enough to handle 1,000 to 2,000 people, Constantino said. On Tuesday morning, there were 210 people from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Mountain View housed at the center, surrounded by pets and suitcases. Some were wrapped in blankets and still wore wet shoes.

Grijalva, who directed the emergency operation through the night with Fleming, said that he didn't want to panic people but that the flooding could last for several days. The National Weather Service reported 2.28 inches of rain fell on Palo Alto from Monday night to Tuesday morning, with another storm expected to hit the area Thursday and Friday.

In addition to the rain, fire officials were concerned that unusually high tides could add to the mayhem along the creek beds.

"This happens once every 100 years," said Constantino. "I know a lot of people who thought El Nino was a lot of bunk. Now they're watching houses tumbling down hillsides."

Storm drains were also causing problems.

"Some of the drains were not only not taking water, they were sending up water," said Stanford Chief of Police, Marv Herrington.

In Menlo Park, Willows residents watched anxiously as San Francisquito Creek rose rapidly near the Chaucer Street Bridge. With flashlights pointed toward the flood gauge, neighbors watched as the creek rose past capacity at around 11:15 a.m., then rose three more feet in the next hour and a quarter. The creek finally spilled out into the surrounding neighborhood at around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

Although there were no reported injuries in Palo Alto and surrounding areas by Tuesday morning, there were numerous traffic accidents on the slippery roads.

One man was rescued around 1:30 a.m. by boat from his overturned truck when he plowed into four feet of water on the Oregon Expressway underpass beneath Alma Street, Constantino said. The man managed to swim to safety, and was rescued from the top of the pump station, Constantino said.

All of the underpasses along El Camino Real were closed overnight, and fire officials feared that there could be as many as four cars stranded under 10 feet of water under the Oregon Expressway underpass.

Twenty-six roads were reportedly flooded on Tuesday morning, and five major arteries were closed, including University Avenue at Woodland Avenue, Willow Road west of Middlefield Road, Embarcadero Road at Highway 101, and other major intersections. Highway 101 was closed between Willow Road and Embarcadero Road, officials said.

A Menlo Park fire truck had to be rescued when it became stuck in mud, according to Division Chief Harold Schapelhouman, who was up all night rescuing hundreds of people from flooding in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

Commander Dominick Peloso of the Menlo Park police said two squad cars became trapped in flooded water, and the officers inside had to be rescued.

According to Schapelhouman, the most dangerous point of the evening for his men was flooding of the San Francisquito Creek around Alpine Road. Several families were rescued from swirling water, and one house on Bishop Lane was lifted from its foundations and floated against a tree, Schapelhouman said.

In East Palo Alto, city officials activated the emergency operations center at 11:30 p.m. as flooding from San Francisquito Creek moved into the Gardens neighborhood on the east side of Highway 101 and the Woodland Avenue area on the west side.

The Red Cross shelter at the Bell Street gym was full with 200 people by about 1 a.m., and a second shelter later opened at Cesar Chavez Academy.

"We had buses from the (Ravenswood) school district transport these people to the shelters," said Police Chief Wes Bowling. "Most of the homes actually flooded. There is dike (along the East Palo Alto side of San Francisquito Creek), but it crested."

Flooding was worst at University Avenue in Whiskey Gulch at the Bayshore Freeway, with almost 4 feet of water on the roadway, Bowling said. "Many cars were trapped," he said. "One Volkswagen was floating on the water."

Hours later when the waters receded, several cars could be seen strewn at odd angles along the on- and off-ramps to the freeway in Whiskey Gulch.

"Water was knee-deep on University Avenue," said East Palo Alto City Council member Duane Bay.

"It's certainly a catastrophe," said Mayor R.B. Jones. "But it's impressive how in a short time all these people and agencies have come together" to provide relief services. Those agencies include the city, Ravenswood City Elementary School District, the East Palo Alto Sanitary District, and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.

The flooding along Woodland Avenue was severe enough that several families had to flee their homes and first-floor apartments and bang on the doors of neighbors in second-floor apartments to seek refuge. Some ultimately had to be rescued by boat.

Naomi Mulitauaopele, a Stanford University student and star on its women's basketball team, said she awakened at about 3 a.m. in her Woodland Avenue apartment. "I woke to the sound of what sounded like bubbles and stepped into the water," Mulitauaopele said. "Within 15 minutes, it was up to my knees."

Mulitauaopele awakened her cousin, Lele Patu, who was staying with her as Mulitauaopele recuperates from knee surgery. "Naomi came and said it was all flooded," Patu said. "It was so horrible."

Patu said that a neighbor, Gertrude Chapman, rescued her cat. "We were all sleeping, and I heard this gurgling sound at 2:30 a.m.," Chapman said. Chapman said she looked outside and saw the water rising in both her front and back yards. "By 3 a.m., the water shot up through the floors."

Chapman and her two children, Mulitauaopele, and Patu and her family all huddled together in an upstairs apartment as the water rose.

At about 6:30 a.m., they saw rescue workers coming down the street in a boat. "My cousin went out and waved down a boat," Mulitauaopele said. The rescue workers then helped her into the boat, crutches and all, and they later arrived at the Red Cross shelter at Cesar Chavez Academy.

Schapelhouman said that in his 17 years with Menlo Park Fire Protection District, this is the first time he's seen San Francisquito Creek overflow.

"The water wants to follow its natural path along the Bayshore Freeway," said Schapelhouman. "A lot of East Palo Alto used to be marshland not so long ago."

Schapelhouman said that the torrential rainfall and high tide was compounded by debris in the creek that blocked the flow of water to the Bay.

"While a lot of people wanted to preserve the creek, we really needed to have it cleaner," he said. "When these things happen, you see what creeks are for--to take water flow down from the mountains."

In a press release Tuesday afternoon, Menlo Park Fire Protection officials announced that the damage in the San Francisquito area was severe. The creek has begun to collapse in several areas, it said, and threatens several roadways including West Bayshore, East O'Keefe, the 1900 block of University Avenue, Euclid Avenue and Pope Street.

Fire officials also cautioned parents from letting children play near the creek, and asked that residents beware of raw sewage and petroleum products that have been seen during flooding. Fire officials said people should wash their hands and any clothing exposed to the flood water.

Schapelhouman said that the creek had been badly damaged by cascading water and would take several months to repair.

The storm also hit parts of the Stanford University campus with a vengeance. Stanford President Gerhard Casper canceled the day's classes around 9 a.m. Tuesday. While offices remained open Tuesday, some campus buildings were closed.

The basement of the Green Library began flooding around midnight. By 2 a.m. students and library employees assembled to remove the books from the library, said Alan Acosta, director of the Stanford News Service. The basement holds books as well as periodicals.

Acosta was among the university officials called out under the university's emergency plan around 3 a.m. to survey the campus for trouble spots. He said it was lucky Stanford students study so much.

"At Stanford, students are still up studying at that time," Acosta said. "Word went out through resident fellows and resident assistants (in the dorms). As many as 100 students went out in the rain to remove books from the floor of the library."

Robert Mantovani, who works in the privileges office at the library got called in to help out in the wee hours of the night.

"Not only is it flooding, but power was lost in the building," he said.

By 9 a.m. library employees, working with lights driven by emergency generators, had stacked hundreds of boxes of books in the lobby of the library. Mantovani said he recalls Meyer Library flooding two times in the past, but he has never seen it happen at Green Library.

Meyer, which sits just across a plaza from Green, was open Tuesday. But Mantovani said Meyer's Government Documents room, which is connected to Green through an underground passage, was also closed due to flooding.

Before they heard classes were canceled Tuesday morning, students heading to their human biology midterm exam at Cubberly Auditorium found the building closed due to electrical danger. Flooding in the School of Education building caused a power outage.

Several students with rooms in the basement of Crothers Hall were evacuated because of flooding, Stanford Police Chief Marv Herrington said. The Braun Music Center was also closed due to flooding and lack of power.

Stanford officials said classes may also be canceled Wednesday. A hotline has been set up for class and office closures at the university, 725-5555.

Some streets around campus were closed by the storm. Junipero Serra Boulevard and parts of Campus Drive were closed because of mud and water running off the adjacent hills, Herrington said.

"Thank goodness we have the lake (Lagunita), because it's taking the water," Herrington said.

Herrington added that some residential parts of the university lost power for several hours, starting around 4:30 p.m. Monday.

The storm also caused damage to Duveneck Elementary School on Alester Avenue in Palo Alto.

"There is standing water in six classrooms," said Augie Lavagnino, assistant business manager for the Palo Alto Unified School District. "It's like a lake out there, the whole neighborhood. We're trying to sandbag and get the water out of the classrooms."

"I got a phone call from the fire department at 11 p.m," Lavagnino said. "At 12, they said they may need some buses to evacuate. At three, we had four drivers shuttling people from East Palo Alto and Palo Alto. We're a public entity, so we're always available in a disaster."

"(The classrooms) are unlikely to be habitable for a couple of days," said Superintendent Don Phillips. "The rest of the district, we are wet, but not under."

Phillips decided to cancel school in the early hours of Tuesday, due to the uncertainty of the weather, and the difficulty of transporting children across the city because of scattered flooding. "It wasn't prudent to bring people in when you potentially risk life safety issues," he said.

District officials were still watching several schools that could be endangered by flooding Tuesday morning: Juana Briones, Hoover, Palo Verde, Nixon and Fairmeadow.

Despite earlier fears of flooding, the Barron Park neighborhood pulled through better than most.

Barron Park resident and creek watcher Bob Moss went to check Barron Creek at 11:30 p.m. Monday and met a Santa Clara Valley Water District official and some fire department officials. At that point, the creek was 3 feet high, with the excess water being diverted into Matadero Creek.

But by midnight, Moss said, a neighbor called to say the water was starting to get dangerously high on Matadero Creek near Waverley Street, so the diverter, located on Barron Creek near Gunn High School, was partially closed. The water never got much higher than three feet, he said.

"The diverter did what it was supposed to do," Moss said. "The outcome clearly is the flood control project works fine." The only issue, he said, is how much water can be diverted to Matadero Creek before it floods.

"The good news is we didn't have any creeks that went over the banks," said Will Beckett, president of Barron Park Neighborhood Association. "But we did have some local street flooding. We had possibly some flooding on Barron and La Donna, and we're not sure if this is related to the storm drain project. The grate at the diversion channel was damaged because it failed to open."

The cleanup after the deluge continued into the day Tuesday. Palo Alto fire officials were allowing evacuees back to their residences to pack more belongings so that they would be more prepared for future flooding, Constantino said.

Four sandbag stations have been established in Palo Alto to help stave off more flooding. The stations are at Alma Street and Hawthorne Avenue, 600 E. Meadow Drive, Colorado Avenue and Greer Road, and at the Hoover School site. Additional sandbag information is available at 496-6974.

The water was starting to subside Tuesday morning, but officials were concerned that an afternoon high tide might bring more damage.

"We can't do anything until it recedes," said Constantino.

"This is what we're trained to do," said Grijalva calmly, as he surveyed the scene from his 6th floor City Hall office at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. "We deal with big emergencies quite a bit. While it's traumatic for the individuals involved, on the magnitude of emergencies there's not a lot we can do."

--Vicky Anning, Charlie Breitrose, Don Kazak, Elisabeth Lorenz and Elisabeth Traugott

Palo Alto Online Logo