Palo Alto reacts to flood

Some residents are angry that there was no warning

by Elisabeth Traugott

After the rain subsided Tuesday morning and the extent of the damage to homes began to sink in, a single question remained in the minds of many Palo Altans: Why didn't we have more warning?

The question echoed most in neighborhoods near Oregon Expressway and Highway 101, where many residents were awakened by neighbors pounding on their doors or by the sound of rushing water--not by emergency crew bullhorns.

Oregon Avenue resident Jim Bourdon heard an unfamiliar sound in the early hours of Tuesday morning. "It sounded like the hose was on," said Bourdon, who lives with his father, Bob Bourdon. "I guess it was water coming into the house."

The Bourdons then heard their neighbor banging on their door and knew that it was time to leave, but they had no time to move any of their furniture. On Wednesday, the father and son were standing on a muddy floor in their living room, contemplating where to begin the cleanup process. In the kitchen, a window covering was stained up to 2 feet above floor level.

Further down the street, Paul Hsiung stood outside of his house and told his version of Tuesday morning's events. "The water was freezing. It was very cold," he said. "We didn't have any time to pack up anything."

A neighbor took Hsiung and his wife out by boat in the early hours of the morning. Hsiung said no rescue trucks came onto his street until 7:30 a.m.

But city officials said Thursday that there was little time for reaction because the water came with such force and at such high speeds after breaking the banks of San Francisquito Creek at about 2:30 a.m. They had to interrupt evacuation efforts in north Palo Alto and quickly transition to rescue mode.

"It happened so fast, there is no way we could have gotten there in time to say, 'Look, there is water coming your way,'" said Tony Spitaleri, a Palo Alto Fire Department spokesman. "There is a point, unfortunately, when nature just outdoes us."

That is not an answer that some residents are likely to accept, especially those who feel that the city has turned its back on the hazards posed by the creek for years.

"There was no warning," said Hamilton Avenue resident John Hanna, a Palo Alto attorney. "Everyone along our street that had a basement, their basement was full of water."

Hanna says he will sue the city for damages from Tuesday's flood, because he says he has been corresponding with officials for the past four to five years, asking them to improve the Chaucer Street bridge's capacity. While he hasn't officially put his lawsuit together yet, "any number of residents are saying, 'Count us in,'" Hanna said.

Also on Wednesday, residents scrambled to fill sandbags to ward off more water in the event that this weekend's predicted storms wreak more havoc. But supplies of sandbags were vanishing almost as soon as they arrived.

Jeff Ferguson, a Palo Alto Avenue resident, finally gave up and called a private company to order 96 sandbags at a cost of $360. Others waited for up to two hours at Palo Alto Avenue and Hale Street for more bags.

"You either have sand and you have no bags, or you have bags and you have no sand," said Ellen Shulman, a Hamilton Avenue resident who is sheltering an entire family who were flooded out of their Arcadia Place home. "You need the two to be productive."

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