Putting the floodbehind us

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 17, 1998

Putting the floodbehind us

Report acknowledges mistakes and lack of preparedness, but city opts for hardball law firm to defend against citizen damage claims

It was an unfortunate and odd juxtaposition last week as the Palo Alto City Council heard reports and took action on several follow-up items to the February floods.

First, as a stern warning to those citizens who are thinking of trying to hold the city partially responsible for their flood damage, the City Council approved hiring one of the best-known trial attorneys in California to defend it.

Next, the Council heard a well-prepared staff assessment of how the city had responded to the flood, acknowledging that it was ill-prepared and lacking in effective notification strategies.

And finally, in an attempt to improve communication with the public and reduce potential damages from future disasters, the Council approved the purchase of a telephone notification system for $57,000, a second, satellite system capable of sending text messages to the homes of hearing- impaired residents for $88,000 and more than $200,000 in improvements to the city's emergency operations center.

We commend the city staff for the honest and critical review of their work and the mistakes that were made during the night of Feb. 2 and early morning of Feb. 3. It's not easy to have worked so hard in an emergency and then face such public criticism.

But painful as it may be to the staff, fundamental elements of flood disaster planning which should have been in place were not: No plan existed for how to notify residents of an impending emergency, no information had been prepared indicating where water would flow in the event of a breech of the creeks or tidal flooding, and, except for the mayor, no City Council members were kept informed about what was going on in the community.

While we understand and support the expenditure of over $300,000 in new high-tech notification systems and upgrades to the emergency operations center, we caution against the temptation of thinking our failures were the result of inadequate technology. There were many low-tech actions that could have put Palo Alto residents on alert and mitigated the damage later suffered.

Citizens of all communities have an expectation that the most fundamental and important services needed from local government are--above all else--police and fire protection and competent disaster planning. On Feb. 2, the city of Palo Alto let down its community members.

And it is for that reason that we are particularly disappointed to see the city pursuing an aggressive defense strategy against the claims being made against it. So far, over a dozen residents or businesses have filed claims for damages to personal property, including six transmitted through Palo Alto resident and attorney John Hanna, a flood victim himself who argues, we think wrongly, that the city long ago should taken preventative steps such as raising the Chaucer Street bridge.

The specter of Palo Alto flood victims being taken on by San Jose attorney Allen Ruby, financed by Palo Alto taxpayers at $300 an hour, is one that should be avoided if at all possible.

Having been courageous enough to admits its faults, the city of Palo Alto should now be courageous in pursuing mediation with its flood victims instead of threatening the litigation capabilities of Ruby and his partner. And similarly, victims should show restraint in arguing that the city could have somehow prevented the floods from occurring.

Many disaster victims are still angry with the city and some are still struggling to put their lives back together. While that anger and damage may ultimately need to be vented in the courts, the City Council should insist that mediation be the highest priority in trying to resolve these claims in a fair and equitable manner.

ranging from a $1,000 claim for rusted airplane wheels San Jose attorney Allen Ruby and his partner Glen Schofield 

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