Council bears brunt of anger

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

Council bears brunt of anger

Flood victims give them a piece of their minds about city's response

by Elisabeth Traugott

The Palo Alto City Council chambers echoed with hostility and violent tempers Monday night, as more than a dozen residents lambasted city staff and elected officials for their lack of preparedness in the face of the Feb. 3 flood. The outburst came after City Manager June Fleming spent nearly an hour congratulating staff and debriefing the council on the city's reaction to the disaster, which the city now estimates damaged 400 homes and caused $6 million in structural damage alone in Palo Alto.

At one point, audience members jeered and heckled council members who cracked a joke over the Farmer's Almanac. "It's not funny," some in the audience shouted. Residents also took advantage of an extend oral communication period to voice their frustration.

"The act of nature I understand, but the lack of information is incredible," said De Soto Drive resident Mary Schaefer, whose house was flooded on Tuesday morning. "I have lost my family photographs . . . but I have lost the trust in the city, which is the biggest thing."

Some residents asked the staff to consider removing the Chaucer Street bridge, which they see as the main factor contributing to the flooding.

Kevin Fisher, an Alester Avenue resident, said he had to help his elderly mother, his two small children and a dog as flood waters enveloped his house. He said he waved to a fire engine and it didn't respond.

"I realize a comprehensive solution is a long way away, but in the meantime, let's think about getting rid of the bridge," Fisher said. "This is a serious job retention issue for you this year."

Before residents spoke, the City Council was debriefed on the city's response during the flood. At times holding back tears, Fleming, whose own house was severely damaged by a foot of flood water on the first floor, recounted how city workers worked night and day to help cope with an unexpected disaster.

Fleming praised city staff for their efforts, applauding the fact that there was no loss of life, no serious injuries, and no sustained loss of utilities. "We acted as quickly and as expeditiously as our resources would allow," she said. "We believe that under existing circumstances, we did the absolute best we can."

Among the city's accomplishments, Fleming listed its Web site, which had continuous updates; the constant relay of information over cable channel 16; free trash bins and sandbags; and the fire department's offer to pump out basements, a service that it is not required to perform, she said. Fleming also said the city has already begun to find office space for FEMA employees in case President Clinton declares Santa Clara County a disaster area.

Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva, who directed the Emergency Operations Center, said the city will begin a debriefing process Tuesday and will report back to the City Council periodically over the next few months.

He said that on the night of the flood his forces were fully engaged with emergency calls, including gas leaks and a report of a driver trapped in his car under the Page Mill Road underpass.

Later in the meeting, Director of Public Works Glenn Roberts said the creek rose the last four feet in 15 minutes, which was inconsistent with its rising pattern for the evening as a whole and caught his staff off guard. "It really made it unfeasible for any kind of notification to occur in that short time frame," he said.

The answer didn't please most in attendance at Monday's meeting. "I apologize for having to bring my dog. He's homeless too," said Gary Nolan, an Alester resident and Stanford professor who had his pet in tow.

"My house is, in my opinion, a complete loss," Nolan said. "It just really goes to show you how distanced the community leaders are from what is really going on."

Also on Monday night, the City Council met in closed session to discuss litigation pending from the flood of the San Francisquito Creek. Although the plaintiff was not named, Palo Alto attorney John Hanna has publicly said he will sue the city for damages related to his flooded Hamilton Avenue home.

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