After the flood: asking why

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

After the flood: asking why

Midpeninsula residents appreciate the efforts city officials made after the flood, but many ask why they received no warning.

by Vicky Anning, Don Kazak, Elizabeth Lorenz and Elisabeth Traugott

As the rain poured down on the Midpeninsula Feb. 2, the normally tranquil mountainside creeks along the ridge bordered by Skyline Boulevard began to show a darker, more malevolent side. Throughout the night, the water in San Francisquito Creek barreled down the hills until the early hours of Feb. 3, when an otherwise benign creek turned parts of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto into a swirling, muddy nightmare.

By all accounts, hundreds of homes were devastated by the water, their floors buckling and their walls saturated. Estimates of the damage are in the millions of dollars, and many families will be forced to live in hotels or with friends for months until their homes are, after great expense, restored to normal.

In the days following the flood, as homeowners dragged their belongings to the curb and insurance assessors made the rounds, there was general agreement about two points: The storm took everyone by surprise, and the assistance provided by city officials after the creek broke its banks was top-notch.

But questions remain about how prepared the cities were for the event and whether they could have given residents more warning.

With just another hour of warning, how much could have been saved? If officials had better managed San Francisquito Creek--the only creek to overtop its banks--would it have overflowed? Did residents themselves take El Nino seriously enough?

Initial answers to such questions vary widely depending on who is asked.

In Palo Alto, city officials say they had been planning for El Nino for months, cleaning out the city's 2,750 storm drains, surveying creeks for debris, and gearing up crews for a potential flood. But the scale of last week's flood caught them off guard.

"At the time that the creek went over, everyone was surprised at where it went," said Palo Alto Mayor Dick Rosenbaum. "People didn't recognize what would happen as the night wore on. I don't think anyone anticipated that the creek would go over."

According to a creek gauge operated by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Stanford Golf Course, the water in San Francisquito Creek was moving at about 7,100 cubic feet per second at the height of the storm.

When the creek broke its banks, a wave of water swept through Palo Alto and settled east of Greer Road in and around Oregon Expressway--an area that is 40 feet lower than the banks of the San Francisquito. Faced with waist-high water on streets and flooded homes, a large pump station across from Greer Park could only process 240 cubic feet of water per second.

"The pumps did not malfunction," said City of Palo Alto Senior Engineer Joe Teresi, who oversees the city's storm drains. "There was so much water there, the pumps weren't able to keep up," he said. "The infrastructure is not built for those scenarios."

Many in that neighborhood and elsewhere are upset because they weren't warned by emergency officials to evacuate. Others have praised the city's efforts and reported being warned by emergency officials earlier in the evening.

"It would have been nice if there were bullhorns," said Cathie Lehrberg, a University Avenue resident and president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association.

Lehrberg had stayed up late to watch the creek, but she eventually decided to go to sleep. She and her family were awakened at 4 a.m. by a neighbor, and found a basement flooded with 4 feet of water. "Had (only) we woken up at 2 a.m., and seen it rising," she said wistfully.

Her mother, who lives in a guest cottage in back, had about 2 inches of water in her home.

Across the creek from Crescent Park, in the Willows area of Menlo Park, residents swept mud from their garages and gathered sandbags last week. Some were also asking questions about their city's preparation for Monday night's flood.

"I think the city could have done a better job of notification," said East Creek Drive resident Burt Dupree, who lost 5 feet of earth from the end of his driveway as the creek waters swept by his yard.

Gilbert Avenue resident Mary Ellen Farwell was also frustrated by the lack of information she received from city authorities. "At 8 p.m., I felt the creek was about to flood. I didn't know what to do," she said. "It's possible that the city didn't know what to do either. We had no idea of the path the water would take."

Farwell received no evacuation warnings Monday night, although some of her neighbors said they heard police warning them over loudspeakers that they may need to evacuate. "Nobody could tell me what goes into the decision as to whether to be evacuated," she said. She and her partner sat tight and hoped for the best.

Luckily for Farwell, a newly-installed storm drain under Gilbert and Laurel prevented the Willows neighborhood from serious flooding. Although the muddy water lapped the sidewalk in front of her house at the intersection with Laurel, only her basement filled with water.

Menlo Park City Manager Jan Dolan said that the Menlo Park homes that received the most serious damage--those on Emma Lane and Oak Court--were not even marked on the FEMA flood zone map. On Feb. 3--just a day after the storm--the City Council approved a detailed study of the Willows neighborhood in order to challenge the flood zones identified by FEMA.

Dolan said the city had done all it could to prepare for El Nino, but the strength of the storm and the path of the flooding took everyone by surprise.

"We had no way of knowing," she said. "Once (water) came over, it came over at the low spots," she said.

Over in East Palo Alto, the storm caused an estimated $12 million in damage and forced hundreds of people into Red Cross shelters, some for several days. Despite the problems caused by the storm, a brand-new emergency response plan kicked in for the first time and, by all accounts, ran smoothly.

When the city's emergency operations center was activated at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 2, city crews quickly swung into action, patrolling the creek to look for breaches in the levee east of the freeway and helping evacuate residents from flood-threatened homes by sounding warnings through bullhorns.

"The storm just overwhelmed us," City Manager Jerry Groomes said. "It wasn't a case of storm drains backing up. If we didn't have the (emergency) plan, we would have been in a jam."

The fast-rising creek also surprised Palo Alto fire officials, who said they were overwhelmed with other flood-related rescue calls--their number one priority--when it eventually overtopped its banks. At one point in the evening, a man was thought to be trapped near a pump station at the Page Mill Road underpass after swimming from his car.

"We were in a very heavy rescue-type mode. We were busy doing rescues, and then we started hearing about creeks rising," said Deputy Fire Chief Judy Jewell. "As soon as we were aware that streets were flooding, we started going out doing a patrol, looking at areas that were impacted."

Street by street, the fire crews launched their boat to rescue flooded residents. "We were so busy . . . when we went into neighborhoods, we would get a call from one neighbor, and there would be six neighbors (needing help)," Jewell said.

The fire department was also doing welfare checks of elderly residents at neighbors' and relatives' requests.

Jewell said there were many heroes Tuesday morning, including two men with a boat who helped rescue stranded neighbors near Oregon Avenue. "They were helping ferry people out of the neighborhood," Jewell said.

"I was listening to the radio, and at one point, one of our engines had water up to the windshield," she said. "That is stuff above and beyond."

Menlo Park Police Cmdr. Dominick Peloso said his officers encouraged people to stay in their homes rather than evacuate, because they weren't anticipating anything more than water lapping at front doors.

"Some people did leave and then went back," said Peloso.

In East Palo Alto, Police Chief Wes Bowling said most of the evacuations were mandatory, but most residents willingly agreed to leave their threatened homes.

East Palo Alto Mayor R.B. Jones said the Ravenswood City School District's help was essential, and credited the bus drivers for not only transporting but also helping to console the flood victims who were evacuated.

"If it had not been for the school district, our goodwill would have just been goodwill," Jones said.

Jones and Vice Mayor Sharifa Wilson were out with city crews, checking on the extent of the flooding.

East Palo Alto City Council member Duane Bay was also out during the flooding, watching the creek and looking for ways to pitch in, but he said he ended up mostly observing. "Every time we ran into a situation, people were taking care of it," Bay said. "The Red Cross did a fantastic job at the shelters."

"Emergencies and disaster are just what they are," Jones said. "We learned some things, and made some mistakes." Jones credited the Ravenswood school district, the East Palo Sanitary District and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department for cooperating closely with the city during the emergency. "All the public agencies came together," Jones said. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District helped rescue many stranded motorists and residents by using boats.

Groomes also singled out Romic Environmental Technologies, the city's largest private employer, for pitching in to help during the crisis. "They've been around to see what we needed," Groomes said of Romic.

Among other things, Romic dispatched crews of employees to fill sandbags at the city corporation yard and to work on the levee. When the the entrance to the Bell Street gym--an emergency Red Cross shelter--flooded Feb. 3 Romic workers laid down plywood so people who had been flooded out of their homes wouldn't have to walk through more water.

In addition, Groomes said Romic regularly provided provided food for the city workers who were staffing the emergency operations center around the clock all last week, and even provided food for the crews of volunteers who were making sandbags at the city's corporation yard.

"Things were organized and things worked," said Wilson. "Many residents pitched in to help."

Wilson said she saw members of city commissions pitching in to help at the Red Cross shelters, only to learn later that they were in the shelters because they, too, had been flooded out.

"People were getting sandbags to help their neighbors," Wilson said. "They really pulled together."

To help with the cleanup, 1,000 students from Carlmont High School in Belmont descended on East Palo Alto Monday to help city crews with the daunting task of cleaning up flood debris.

What is certain this week, as the area braces for another storm on Thursday, is that no one is going to take anymore chances.

Volunteers in East Palo Alto helped city crews all last week to shore up the levee, which was examined last Friday by the Army Corps of Engineers. Groomes said the Army engineer took a look at the work that had been done to strengthen the levee at a couple of weak points, and suggested adding some rocks to the dirt being used to build the levee up. "The idea is to try to build up a means to resist the flow (of water)," Groomes said.

Maintenance crews in Menlo Park worked around the clock to shore up eroded banks and damaged streets in the path of San Francisquito Creek last week, adding rocks to the most precarious banks and pulling out trees and vegetation that had been swept into the creek itself.

"We pulled telephone poles out of there," said Menlo Park's director of engineering, Ruben Nino.

Officials opened up emergency sandbag stations throughout the city on Tuesday and Wednesday. Twenty-five thousand sandbags were delivered Wednesday, and another 10,000 were delivered on Thursday and Friday, according to a maintenance department official.

"We'll keep bringing (sand) until we don't need it any more," said public works employee Joe Pimentel, explaining how to fill sandbags: half full, then twist, tie and lay them on their sides.

The city also bought 50 cots for an emergency shelter at Burgess Gymnasium. But Farwell hoped she would have information if the flood waters rise again--like how to use the sandbags she has been filling. "We were told not to get sandbags (before this storm), because it can stop water from draining away," she said. "It's hard to plan when we don't know what to plan for."

Glenn Roberts, director of public works for the City of Palo Alto, said his staff will be prepared and ready for storms well beyond this coming week. During El Nino years, it can rain heavily into April, Roberts said.

"We learned a lot as a result of this storm and this event," Roberts said. "It's a real significant tragedy, and everyone has worked together . . . to clean up."

Palo Alto Online Logo