City admits it was a little unprepared

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 10, 1998

FLOOD OF '98: City admits it was a little unprepared

Inexperience and lack of a warning system were magnified by unpredictable weather, report states

by Elisabeth Traugott

Lack of a notification system and limited staff experience were partly to blame for the city of Palo Alto's seemingly slow response in the face of the Feb. 2-3 flood, a self-critique released by city staff has concluded. The critique, compiled by Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva, Assistant Police Chief Lynne Johnson, Senior Engineer Joe Teresi and Senior Executive Assistant Audrey Seymour, offers the city's explanation for residents' dissatisfaction with city services and outlines the events of the night of the flood.

"Despite its efforts to be prepared for the El Nino storm season, the city was caught off guard by the intensity and pace of the Feb. 2-3 flood," the report concedes.

Contributing to the lack of preparedness was the fact that many city employees had not previously experienced an emergency situation, there was no agreed-upon notification system and access to weather information was unreliable. In addition, the report said, personnel in the operations center did not have available to them maps that would have indicated the downward slope away from San Francisquito Creek. It also admits that having employees monitor creek levels was not the best use of resources.

But the report concludes that--for the most part--it was the intense and unpredictable weather that overpowered city forces that night.

"It was not possible to predict whether, where and/or when flooding would occur," it states.

The report concludes that flooding was caused by San Francisquito Creek topping its banks in 15 locations beginning around 1:30 a.m. at Seneca Street. Storm drains worked well, staff concluded, but were unable to deal with the onslaught of water, which reached a volume of 7,100 cubic feet per second at the United States Geological Survey gauge at the Stanford Golf Course--the highest since records were first kept there in 1930.

Since the flood, the city has put in place a weather station at Foothills Park and gauges in San Francisquito, Adobe and Matadero creeks to help predict storms and creek volume. One problem, the report acknowledges, was that city staff were obtaining weather information from local news stations and Internet satellite pictures, which made it difficult to predict local rainfall.

Initially, the storms were expected to hit Palo Alto in the early afternoon of Feb. 2. When the rain seemed to lessen by mid-afternoon, two overtime firefighters called in to monitor creeks were sent home, the report states.

In the 24-hour period from 6 a.m. Feb. 2, to 6 a.m. Feb. 3, 4.5 inches of rain fell in Palo Alto, but the heaviest rainfall came late in the evening of Feb. 2, between 10 p.m. and midnight.

In all, the city received 3,231 emergency calls between 9 p.m. Feb. 2 and midnight Feb. 4. The city takes 450 emergency calls in an average 24-hour period.

At the Palo Alto City Council meeting Monday night, Council member Gary Fazzino peppered the staff with questions about their critique. He said communication with the public, on a variety of levels, was the greatest weakness staff displayed during the flooding.

"There was a feeling that police and fire personnel almost crept through neighborhoods," Fazzino said, as he recounted his conversations with residents in the days after the flood. "The message we got from the community was they want as much noise as possible."

Fazzino also said it was "unconscionable" that, as a council member, he wasn't informed of the extent of the damage until 12 hours after it happened.

At around 12:45 a.m. on Feb. 3, emergency personnel began to evacuate residents from Walter Hays Drive, Lambert Avenue and Marshall Drive, according to the report. Fire engine sirens and public address systems were also used in various areas, although efforts were hampered by water submerging the sirens on the fire engines' bumpers, staff reported.

By 1:30 a.m., the first reports of San Francisquito Creek overflowing came in, and emergency personnel redirected their efforts to Seneca and Guinda streets and Palo Alto and University avenues.

By that time, the water began to surge southward and eastward and to pool near Oregon Expressway. The report also lauds city staff for strengths exhibited that night. Among the positive outcomes cited are the avoidance of fatalities and significant injuries, that no homes were condemned as a result of flood damage and that no major power outages occurred.

Fazzino praised the staff for the report and its honesty, calling it "an excellent job of self-analysis." 

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