City crews work to stay ahead of flooding | January 13, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 13, 2023

City crews work to stay ahead of flooding

With Bobcats and school volunteers, locals address storms' impacts

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

As heavy rains rapidly pushed up water levels in the San Francisquito Creek to worrisome volumes on Monday morning, crews from the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park were busily working on the closed Pope-Chaucer Bridge to remove debris from the creek, which passes through both cities.

Before noon at the bridge, a city worker used a Bobcat bulldozer to remove logs and debris floating downstream before they hit the structure. The bridge opening below was only inches from being completely filled with water.

The worker lifted up debris and deposited it onto the bridge, sometimes picking up a large log just by its end and pulling it onto the bank. Even for logs that were under the water, the worker deftly maneuvered his Bobcat to scoop them up.

Oscar Godinez, manager of maintenance operations for the Palo Alto Public Works Department, said that the city had crews working 12-hour shifts around the clock.

Crews remove debris from the creeks when water levels reach 15-16 feet, which is a point when creeks are most at risk. They stop when the level drops to 13 feet, he said.

Between last weekend and Monday, the Public Works Department had 38 calls for downed trees. While he worked on-call on Sunday, there were at least 10 calls for blocked storm drains. The blockages were largely leaves across the grates which crews could easily remove, allowing the water to go down easily.

"We are trying to catch up with major calls," he said.

Palo Alto's pumping station has held up well, Godinez said. Because the storm drain system and sewer system are separate, there's no risk of sewage overflow during a flood. That contrasts with San Francisco and the east bay, where the pumping stations were overwhelmed and are believed to have dumped sewage into San Francisco Bay, according to multiple media outlets.

Residents express worry, frustration

Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto near University Circle had sandbags set up for at least 100 feet along the creek edge Monday, and teams kept a close eye on the rushing water. Woodland was closed at Scofield Avenue throughout the afternoon for crews to remove downed trees before reopening to traffic by the evening.

Barbara Coll, a Menlo Park resident who lives on Woodland Avenue, said her home is one of only five that doesn't flood during the storms. She recalled the 1998 flood when she and her neighbors were breaking into the garages of other neighbors who weren't home to rescue their belongings as the flood waters rose.

During the Dec. 31 storm, her neighbors evacuated her cat and moved her all-electric vehicle to safer, higher ground while she was 3,000 miles away. All-electric vehicles such as hers can stop functioning.

"If they get 12 inches of water, the electrical system might be completely destroyed, and the cars will stop working," she said.

Looking at the rapidly flowing creek late on Monday morning, with its level staying steady at 16 feet, she marveled at the large quantity of water rushing down towards the mouth of the bridge.

"I keep waiting for a cow to come floating down," she said.

Menlo Park resident Brian McPhail said he didn't feel the city was ready for the storms.

"The storm drains haven't been adequately cleaned for years. It's kind of amazing how many storm drains are plugged."

Richard Phillips, also of Menlo Park, said he felt sorry for people whose houses were flooded by this year's storm. He has lived near the creek for more than 30 years. He recalled seeing salmon in the creek way back when waters were lower.

"They were this big," he said as he held out his hands about 18 inches apart.

He doesn't support building high walls along the creek, which would block views and impact wildlife.

"This is a wild creek, a lot of wildlife lives here. I value that more than having to deal with the occasional risks of flooding."

The area used to be a floodplain and The Willows neighborhood used to get flooded, but that has now changed with Palo Alto bearing the brunt of the storms. Phillips offered a philosophical take on the creek's behavior:

"This is California. People only complain under two conditions: when it doesn't rain and when it does."

Schools prepare for potential flooding

The Palo Alto Unified School District was similarly optimistic that the storm wouldn't force any disruptions to the school day on Monday.

The district was staging two school buses outside Duveneck Elementary School — which sits about a quarter mile from the San Francisquito Creek — in case an evacuation became necessary.

"If it started to look like things had taken a bad turn, then we would evacuate the students and staff at Duveneck to Greene Middle School, and that's all in place," Superintendent Don Austin said. "We really don't think that's something that's going to happen right now ... but we don't want to be caught unprepared, so that's why we're staging the buses."

If an evacuation did become necessary, Austin said that parents would be given an opportunity to pick their children up and that any students who didn't get a ride home would be taken by bus to Greene.

Over the holidays, Duveneck experienced exterior flooding and was littered with storm debris, but Austin said there was no significant interior damage. Across the district, there were some roof leaks and small amounts of water coming under doors, Austin said.

District staff, as well as some community volunteers, helped clean up campuses over the break, Austin said. The district also worked on clearing drains to mitigate the impact of future storms.

"Every place that we had control over, we tried to take care of on the front end. We're as prepared as we can be," Austin said. "Some things are going to be out of our control — we can't control the creek or if debris flows in and those kinds of things — but otherwise I think our preparation was really good."

Over at the Silicon Valley International School, a private school with a campus right along the San Francisquito Creek north of U.S. Highway 101, Chief Communications Officer Jovi Olson said that they hadn't seen any impacts from the storm but have been in contact with the city to prepare in case of flooding.

The school has evacuation plans in place, Olson said, but as of Monday morning, classes were operating normally.

"We're crossing our fingers, but so far we're prepared should anything happen," Olson said.

Email the Weekly staff at [email protected]


Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2023 at 9:46 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I have been looking at various creeks and I am seeing a lot of flotsam being floated downstream. Some of it is garbage or things like basketballs which obviously weren't intentionally tossed but difficult to retrieve, but most is small branches and similar. These are damming the creeks. A netting placed across the creeks before each bridge might help to stop the double whammy of a dam at a bridge.

Posted by Jerry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2023 at 4:13 pm

Jerry is a registered user.

A massive thank you to the city crews who worked their butts off in this weather. Bobcats usually get a bad name in other contexts but they saved the day today. A real reverse Hans Brinker moment if I may say so.

Posted by mickie winkler
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2023 at 5:19 pm

mickie winkler is a registered user.

The crews did well, yes. But the Creek looked like a forest before the flood. We failed to keep it clear.

Posted by Walter
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 9, 2023 at 6:56 pm

Walter is a registered user.

I think a net across before a bridge would likely cause a dam to form. More useful would be a net nowhere near a bridge and set so it was not too close to the bottom. The problem is if its really needed it would likely fill-up quickly and removing it while the water is still running is difficult. What has happened is to station something on a bridge that can lift stuff out of the water.

Posted by Some Random Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2023 at 10:29 pm

Some Random Resident is a registered user.

Sure would be nice if the writers learned that NONE of the heavy equipment shown in the pictures is a bulldozer. There's a small excavator and a tractor with a front-end loader and a back-hoe.

Posted by Retired PAUSD Teacher
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2023 at 7:59 am

Retired PAUSD Teacher is a registered user.

The roofs at Greene have been leaking for decades with every significant rain, so it is safe to say they will keep leaking. It is also safe to say that Mr. Austin is not being truthful when he states, "Every place that we had control over, we tried to take care of on the front end. We're as prepared as we can be". If he was honest, then the persistent leaks would have been fixed a long time ago. A few evacuation buses make for good optics, but don't be fooled; building maintenance has been neglected under his watch.

Kudos to those who do more than talk, and pitched in to help clear and clean up. The community truly appreciates people that do the real work.

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