Great Flood of '98

by Keith Peters

The phone rang at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, waking us out of a sound sleep. It was a neighbor, Charlene. She wanted to know if I needed her husband, Greg, to help me move my car out of the water in the street.

Water in the street?

It had only been a few hours earlier that my wife, Debbie, suggested that I should move my car. I didn't.

I should have.

The doorbell rang as I leaped into a pair of pants and pulled on a sweatshirt. It was Greg, just home from work in Menlo Park. He was clad in a head-to-toe rainsuit. And did he ever need one. The rain was relentless, pelting down. It hadn't let up all night, and the results were all around me as I stepped out the front door.

Imagine, if you will, the world's largest swimming pool--sans lifeguards and slides. That was our cul-de-sac, completely submerged. The depth of the water registered on the sides of the unfortunate cars still parked in the street. All had their tires covered, which meant there was water inside.

I kept expecting to wake up from this nightmare, until I stepped into the cold water that was creeping up the driveway. Nope, this was as real as it gets. I opened the back hatch of my station wagon and climbed in, rolling down the driver's window and releasing the parking brake. There was water everywhere.

With the help of my neighbors, we pushed my car onto our slanted driveway and opened the driver's door to pull on the parking brake. Water gushed out, just like scenes you see on the evening news. But this was different. This was my town. My neighborhood. My car.

As my wife starting bailing water out of the car, I grabbed my camera and a big golf umbrella and headed back out into the water. It was about 1 a.m. Still dark. Still cold.

I waded into the street, looking for photo opportunities. Neighbors sloshed by, bewildered by the river of water that had swallowed up Colorado Avenue near Greer Road. At the Colorado Park Apartments, water was seeping into the first-floor residences. People scrambled to move their cars out of the parking lot that was quickly filling up. It was going to be a long day for everyone, and daylight was still hours away.

I walked around the corner toward Matadero Creek. Work crews and fire engines already were on the scene. Tall floodlights turned night into day while a crane dipped into the creek, grabbing and removing debris that had collected. Water had reached the top, but still hadn't spilled over. Yet.

A member of the Palo Alto Fire Department said this area of Matadero Creek was the worst in town, with disastrous potential. Residents who lived nearby cautiously worked their way to the creek's edge, hoping against the inevitable. The muddy creek water was flowing fast. High tide was expected at 4 a.m. A meeting of the bay and creek was just a matter of time.

I had seen the creek overflow its banks before. It was the so-called Great Flood of '55. I was just 4 years old and don't remember a whole lot, other than the creek water never came into our house at 3167 Greer Road. Neighbors did have sandbags back then, however, much like they did now. A sandbag station at Greer Park, however, was under water today.

Fortunately, our neighbors across the street had planned ahead. They filled and stacked bags months ago at the first mention of El Nino. I sort of shook my head then, figuring those bags would go unused. Not so. They provided their only protection from having 2 feet of water as a house guest.

From where I stood, the Great Flood of '98 appeared to be the worst in Palo Alto's long history. That was confirmed as daylight broke Tuesday. Flood news was the topic of every newscast. Highway 101 was closed from Menlo Park to Palo Alto, with early morning commuters being forced to sit in long lines as they snaked their way through city streets. Those were the lucky ones. Some local residents had to be rescued in boats from their homes and apartments. One house on Indian Drive had its sunken living room flooded. And a lady who tried to drive the Embarcadero underpass at Alma had to leave her stalled car and swim to safety.

Every school in Palo Alto was closed. My son and his friends set up their own command center at our house--venturing out in the early morning to videotape the damage. Fortunately, the water in our cul-de-sac was far from reaching our doorstep. Word is, however, that the worst may not be over. Another storm is on the way. There will be more rain. More flooding. More sleepless nights.

Keith Peters is Sports Editor of the Weekly.

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