The great flood:Were we prepared?

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

The great flood:Were we prepared?

The conditions were the worst imaginable: multiple breaches of San Francisquito Creek in the middle of the night at high tide. But was enough done to warn the community?

With most any tragedy or crisis comes the paradox of heroic actions and tough questions demanding answers.

The last week has been no exception, and it will be weeks before the events of Feb. 2-3 can be fully evaluated so that important lessons can be learned.

The heroism and sacrifice was evident all around us.

Police, fire and other city employees in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park mobilized quickly late Monday evening as continuous heavy rain caused creek levels to steadily rise.

Flooded underpasses and roadways began overwhelming police and fire personnel, and when San Francisquito Creek went over its banks early Tuesday morning the priorities had to suddenly shift to valiant evacuation efforts in areas made inaccessible to automobiles.

For their hard work that night, and their continuing assistance to victims throughout the week, the employees of all three cities deserve the community's gratitude. Some of them, including Palo Alto City Manager June Fleming, were victims of flooding themselves. They set aside dealing with their own problems in order to help the rest of us.

In the midst of crisis, however, we once again learned that it is neighbor looking after neighbor that works best. In the end, more Palo Alto residents were alerted by a neighbor to the dangers of the night than by emergency personnel. And with emergency resources spread so thin, most victims found themselves solving problems by working with each other rather than with the help of firefighters or police. That's the way it will always be in a widespread crisis.

It is too early to draw conclusions about how Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park responded to the threat of major flooding and its aftermath, but victims are raising plenty of good questions.

Most important is the question of why so few people were aware of the impending danger as they went to bed Monday night. A live broadcast of Monday night's City Council meeting provided at least one vehicle for informing viewers of the emergency, yet all that one learned was that the creeks were rising and that off-duty city employees had been called in. A specific emergency warning to residents in the flood zone and request that they notify their neighbors would have helped spread the word. The broadcast could have also been continued after the meeting adjourned.

Another unutilized tool was the emergency telephone tree system in existence at each elementary school in Palo Alto. The worst hit areas are all in the Duveneck Elementary School attendance area, and had someone thought to activate the system word could have quickly been spread that a creek flood was imminent.

There is also the question of door-to-door warnings. Many residents in Palo Alto are especially upset that there were not police and fire patrols around midnight through the endangered neighborhoods using bullhorns to warn residents. Menlo Park police were doing this in the Willows neighborhood.

And finally, with both the storm drain and sewage treatment systems beyond their capacity, there are design and/or maintenance issues that deserve to be examined.

There will be temptation to focus primary attention on the fact that San Francisquito Creek has been intentionally kept in a semi-natural state, and that the flooding could have been prevented had it been turned into a more effective flood control channel.

The future of San Francisquito Creek is a valid issue for discussion, but it should not preclude a careful examination of how the hours leading up to 2 a.m. Tuesday morning might have been handled differently. Nor should it take away from the tremendous efforts made by exhausted city employees to help the victims of this disaster.

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