If a 1998-level El Nino storm barrels into the Bay Area this winter, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto residents and city staff will be left literally holding the sand bag, officials said at a flood-information meeting on Nov. 19.
The National Weather Service is predicting an El Nino season that would rival 1997-1998, when San Francisquito Creek overflowed its banks and water damaged 1,700 properties, according to Len Materman, executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (JPA).
City and other agency staff discussed everything from how to properly set up sand bags to how to obtain flood insurance with a crowd of nearly 100 people at Lucie Stern Community Center. But also on people's minds was the glacial pace of planned anti-flood work on the creek, which won't be completed in time for this year's stormy season.
If there is another major storm -- and especially if combined with a "king" tide in the San Francisco Bay -- "all bets are off," Materman said.
"Expect the worst. Don't assume it won't happen," he said.
Palo Alto has made some improvements to help prevent the kind of street and other flooding that last occurred on Dec. 23, 2012. The Public Works Department added closure gates to pipes to prevent backflow from storm drains, and a stormwater pump station downstream of U.S. Highway 101 should also keep water from backing up in storm drains in the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, Senior Engineer Joe Teresi said.
The city has added raised berms where the creek overflowed in 2012. East Palo Alto officials, meanwhile, have repaired and raised a damaged levee on the east side of U.S. Highway 101 in the Gardens neighborhood and a section of the creek along Woodland Avenue. And the JPA began work on the San Francisquito Creek Bridge, which crosses under Highway 101 from West Bayshore Road.
But Materman and others cautioned that even with the best-laid preparations, no one knows what a walloping storm might bring, especially if combined with a king tide -- an ultra-high tide -- or a storm surge. A king tide is due on Nov. 25, followed by others in December and January, he said.
Impacts this winter could also be much greater than in 2012, which was a drought year. But "if this is not a drought year, then all bets are off. It's kind of sobering news," Materman said.
The city and the JPA have added new rain gauges upstream, along with gauges at Stanford University, that will now give a 1-hour-and-45-minute warning instead of 45 minutes for when a large volume of water will reach the Pope/Chaucer bridge, arguably the narrowest point along the creek, with the greatest potential for a blockage from debris.
The JPA also recently debuted a flood-warning web page, sfcjpa.org/floodwarning, which includes a map that shows areas of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park at risk of being flooded or where flooding is imminent. Officials will attempt to update the information two hours ahead of any flooding, Materman said.
People can sign up to receive alerts by text message or email or can report a problem at the flood-warning page. The site's flood map should free up 911 dispatch, since users can look online and see if a problem they are observing is already being addressed.
Residents were also encouraged to visit cityofpaloalto.org/storms, which contains U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood maps and links to the city's creek monitor, the JPA flood-warning site and road conditions, along with other important information.
City officials said they will maximize police, fire and utilities staffing during major storms. But Kenneth Dueker, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services, reminded the audience that there are many ways residents can help themselves.
"Create a family plan and safe routes to high ground and determine where you will stay. Talk to neighbors and identify those with special needs; build an emergency kit and obtain sand bags," he said.
Palo Alto Utilities recommends putting electronics up high in one's home so that equipment doesn't come in contact with water.
"If water enters your home, you may need to turn off electrical power and gas," Dueker added, noting that water can snuff out a pilot light, causing natural gas to fill a home.
Residents can also plan for their own evacuation. Unless people want to stay in a Red Cross shelter, they should identify friends or relatives with whom to stay, especially this year, he added.
"Two weeks before Super Bowl 50 you won't find hotels. If you want to go to Stockton or Modesto, maybe," he said.
The city's website cityofpaloalto.org/stormmap, will show closed roads, flooding, downed wires and other incidents, he said.
Some residents at the Nov. 18 meeting turned their attention to the San Francisquito Creek improvement project, with one person asking why the Pope/Chaucer Bridge, the main bottleneck in the whole creek/flood system, can't just be removed.
"You can't simply take out the bridge and not have effects downstream. We didn't feel like we were in a position to take it out and impact other communities downstream," Materman said.
The JPA is a regional government organization of five local agencies including Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto, the County of San Mateo, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which formed 17 years ago to address the flooding problem, but it has been hampered by the slow pace of federal and state agencies, including 2 1/2 years of wrangling with the Regional Water Quality Control Board for permits on the project, he said.
City Manager James Keene told residents at a Nov. 12 town hall meeting that the JPA and the city have finally obtained a clearance from the Water Quality Control Board. But that board's approval is only one of seven required from state and federal regulatory agencies. Since those green lights did not come in time for this year's rainy season, residents and city officials will again face potential flooding and must themselves prepare for the worst, city and JPA officials said.
To-do list recommended by Dueker and other resources:
Create a family plan
Determine safe routes to high ground
Determine where you will stay if you need to evacuate
Talk to neighbors and identify those with special needs
Build an emergency kit; obtain sand bags
If flooding is possible:
Put out sand bags, clean gutters, even those on the street
Make arrangements for where you will stay
Load key items into your car, and perhaps park your car outside of the area
If flooding is expected:
Monitor the radio
If time, call and assist neighbors
Don't wait to be told to evacuate. If things look unsafe, go beforehand
If roads are blocked, don't drive across flooded areas
If water enters your home, turn off gas and electricity
cityofpaloalto.org/storms -- information and resources for Palo Alto regarding storms and flood tracking, including links to the city's Creek Monitor page
www.ci.east-palo-alto.ca.us/index.aspx?NID=509 -- information and resources for East Palo Alto regarding storms and flooding
sfcjpa.org/floodwarning -- warning map tracks potential flooding and flooding incidents
paloaltoonline.com -- online alerts, mapping, information and breaking news
KZSU Stanford, 90.1 FM, radio alerts and information
www.sccgov.org/sites/alertscc/Pages/home.aspx -- Santa Clara County AlertSCC emergency alert system allows sign ups for email and text alerts in disasters
Blocked storm drains and/or landslides -- Palo Alto Public Works 650-496-6974; 650-329-2413 after hours
Fallen trees: Palo Alto Public Works 650-496-5953; 650-329-2413 after hours
Gas leaks, sewer spills: Palo Alto Communications 650-329-2579
Power outages a electrical problems: Palo Alto Electric Operations 650-496-6914
Road conditions: Palo Alto 650-329-2420 (during flood emergency only); Caltrans 800-427-7623
Source: City of Palo Alto