Local cities declared disaster areas

East Palo Alto damage estimated at $12 million; hundreds in Midpeninsula lose phone service

by Don Kazak and Vicky Anning Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday declared San Mateo and Santa Clara counties state disaster areas because of the extensive flood damage in East Palo Alto and Palo Alto.

Assemblyman Ted Lempert, D-Palo Alto, urged the governor to act, as did state Sen. Byron Sher, D-Redwood City.

"This allows the governor to ask Washington for a federal declaration of emergency," Lempert said. The designation could trigger low-interest loans to homeowners cleaning up after Tuesday's flood.

East Palo Alto was hard hit by the Feb. 2-3 flooding.

The preliminary estimate from city officials is that East Palo Alto suffered $12.1 million worth of property damage, including 50 homes destroyed and 105 others suffering major damage. About 500 others were damaged, but not as extensively.

Thirty businesses were damaged, and 32 cars will either have to be destroyed or undergo major repairs.

Officials in Palo Alto and Menlo Park were still assessing the storm damage Thursday morning, as engineers patched up breached banks along San Francisquito Creek, unblocked storm drains and built flood walls in preparation for the next deluge.

Flooding may have cut off phone service for as many as 1,000 homes--including those of Mayor Chuck Kinney and City Council member Steve Schmidt, who have been without telephones since Tuesday.

Pacific Bell spokeswoman Lydia Bell said Thursday that the flood damaged an underground telephone cable at El Camino Real and Cambridge Avenue in Menlo Park that serves up to 1,800 customers. Bell said that Pac Bell had only received 122 complaints so far, and engineers are working around the clock to repair the cable.

Although Menlo Park was not as severely affected by the flooding as Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, San Francisquito Creek overflowed at three locations in Menlo Park. Several homes were damaged and several businesses received minor flooding along El Camino Real due to backed up storm drains, City Manager Jan Dolan said.

East Palo Alto's emergency operations center has been staffed continuously since 11:30 p.m. Monday, and on Thursday morning city officials were gearing up for what promised to be another long night with a second major storm ready to move onshore. "We're going to get hit hard," City Manager Jerry Groomes said, based on latest weather reports.

As of Thursday morning, 76 people remained at the Bell Street emergency shelter being operated by the Red Cross, while a second Red Cross shelter was ready to reopen at Cesar Chavez Academy. In addition, the city was ready to use Brentwood School as a third shelter and obtained space for 40 beds at the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs Hospital, said Meda Okela, the city's community services director.

The Red Cross is operating the East Palo Alto shelters, while the Salvation Army is providing food for the flood victims.

The Feb. 2-3 storm was the first time the city has operated its emergency services shelter, Groomes said. Everything considered, Groomes said, things went smoothly. "We got a lot of cooperation and understanding from the residents in what was a stressful situation," he said.

Perhaps the most extensive damage to homes in Menlo Park occurred at Emma Lane and Oak Court near San Francisquito Creek, where three inches of muddy water flowed into 12 low-lying houses. No one was evacuated, according to Dolan, but several families left their homes voluntarily when the water started to rise.

As residents of Oak Court swept mud from their garages Wednesday, they were already asking questions about the city's preparation for the flooding.

"They could have cleaned up the creek," said one woman who asked not to be named. She said that she had little warning about the impending flood in her street, which was not even included in the FEMA flood zone designation. She evacuated her home before the fire department arrived.

"I was scared to death," she said. "I had no idea what it would be like when I came back."

Dolan said that the city had done all it could to prepare for the storm, including installing storm drains along Laurel Avenue and Gilbert Avenue last year. She added that the drain was effective at averting more serious flooding in the Willows neighborhood.

But the city of Menlo Park is not taking any chances this weekend, with more storms predicted. Officials have opened up five sandbag stations throughout the city, and they have bought 50 cots for an emergency shelter at Burgess Gymnasium.

Twenty-five thousand sandbags were delivered Wednesday, and another 10,000 were due to be delivered Thursday and Friday, according to a maintenance department official.

"We'll keep bringing it until we don't need it any more," said public works employee Joe Pimentel.

--Vicky Anning

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