Near disaster on West Bayshore

Publication Date: Wednesday Feb 11, 1998

Near disaster on West Bayshore

Flash flood almost trapped 40 tenants

When San Francisquito Creek broke over its banks at University Avenue after midnight Feb. 3, most of the residents in the 30 apartments at 1836 West Bayshore Road in East Palo Alto were sleeping.

Maxcine Jefferson woke up because she heard some neighbors outside. They were waking people up, saying the flood was coming.

Within minutes, the water was waist-deep both inside and outside the low-lying apartments.

One neighbor, Debra Matthews, had to crawl out of her window.

"We were all terrified," Jefferson said. "We didn't know what to do."

The residents, about 40 in all including children, waded through the rising water to the back of the apartment building, where their cars were parked. Jefferson said someone started to drive out, only to find that the rising flood waters had floated a large, heavy dumpster down from the back of the property to the front of the driveway, where it wedged against the fence. No one could drive out.

Walking out, or wading out, to West Bayshore, was out of the question, because the creek waters weren't just rising, they were flowing, rushing past in a strong current.

There was no other way out because a solid, tall wooden fence enclosed the back of the property.

"We had to break down the fence to get out," Jefferson said.

"All of us could have died wading through that water," Matthews said.

The flood waters rose so fast that Jefferson is certain what would have happened if she hadn't heard neighbors outside. "If it wasn't for my neighbors, I would have died," she said.

Both Jefferson and Matthews have the same complaint: They received no warning from police or fire crews who were monitoring the rising flood waters and evacuating residents from other areas of East Palo Alto.

"There was no warning, no help," Jefferson said.

"The more I think of it, the madder I get," Matthews said, because just before the flood broke over the creek, she was woken up by the sound of a fire truck driving through heavy standing water on West Bayshore Road just outside her apartment, which is one closest to the street.

But that fire engine was on the way to an emergency call, said Charlie Fasso, acting chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. "We had over 100 calls that night," Fasso said. "We just went from call to call."

City Manager Jerry Groomes said police and city workers, along with firefighters, were busy evacuating people from different areas of the city early Tuesday morning, but that the flood waters came up so fast on West Bayshore there wasn't much the city could do. "We were scrambling," Groomes said. "It wasn't a case of us knowing something and not doing anything about it."

Jefferson, Matthews and the other tenants survived, but they got out with little more than the clothes they were wearing. The flood destroyed everything they owned.

"I didn't get anything out," Jefferson said.

As of last Friday, Jefferson, Matthews and other tenants had no idea who, if anyone, will help pay for what they lost.

Tom Loukos of the Griffin Company of Saratoga, which owns the complex along with two others in East Palo Alto, said the company did not have flood insurance on the property. Loukos said the company will spend $35,000 to $40,000 cleaning out the apartments and repairing damage to the building, heaters, stoves and refrigerators.

Both Jefferson, a courtesy clerk at the Menlo Park Safeway store, and Matthews, a postal clerk at the Palo Alto Main Post Office, say they have no idea how they will replace what they lost.

"I can't replace what I lost," Jefferson said. "I have to get some help."

"They should have flood insurance," Matthews said of the Griffin Company. "Renter's insurance doesn't cover a flood."

Another resident of the complex, Ola Wallacee, was busy last week helping the other tenants make a careful inventory of everything they lost in the flood. "We're trying to salvage as much as we can," Wallacee said. But that might not be much.

The clothing, furniture, stereos, TVs and CDs can all be replaced more easily that some things.

Wallacee displayed a large file of family photographs which date back to the 19th century. "These are my ancestors," Wallacee said as he fought back tears. The photos were ruined.

--Don Kazak

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