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January 14, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Flood lawsuit settled Flood lawsuit settled (January 14, 2004)

Could open doors for other lawsuits in future floods

by Bill D'Agostino

Palo Alto and Menlo Park have agreed to give $3.5 million to a handful of homeowners who sued the cities over their handling of a 1998 San Francisquito Creek flood.

The residents -- a small minority of those affected by the flood -- were asking for $10 million, compensation for property damage, lost time, diminished property values, and emotional distress. Some of the damage had already been reimbursed through flood insurance.

The plaintiffs alleged that two bridges between the cities -- on Middlefield Road and Pope/Chaucer streets -- partially blocked the water in the creek, diverting it toward their homes during the Feb. 3, 1998 flood.

In total, 23 homeowners in Palo Alto and four homeowners in Menlo Park, filed the lawsuit against the cities. They were joined by the owner of one small upholstery shop in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto gave $2.1 million and Menlo Park contributed $1.4 million toward the settlement. The money from Palo Alto will come from its general fund, and from insurance the city has to cover lawsuits.

A committee of plaintiffs will determine how the money will be distributed.

In agreeing to the settlement, the cities have not agreed to modify or remove the bridges, as the plaintiffs had sought, according to Bill Mayfield, Palo Alto senior assistant city attorney.

It is the cities' view that removing the bridges would impact flooding downstream. The cities agreed to the settlement, though, because they worried about the continuing litigation costs and the potential to lose the case.

"It becomes a battle of computer modeling experts, and there's room to play with the numbers," Mayfield said.

The attorney acknowledged the agreement would likely lead others to sue the cities after future floods.

"It's one of the real downsides to deciding to settle," Mayfield said, adding that the city had no good options. "It's not like you can make the lawsuit go away, or the bridges go away."

Some of the plaintiffs would have preferred the cities to use the settlement dollars to remove the bridges.

"I don't want the money, I want the problem fixed," said John Hanna, an attorney and one of the first to file a lawsuit.

In the years before the flood, residents and other government agencies warned Palo Alto about the bridges' potential effect on a flood during heavy rainfall, Hanna said.

"It happened exactly the way it was told to them it was going to happen," said Hanna, whose home and cars were damaged by the flood.

That sentiment echoed those by city experts in the days following the flood, according to a news article included in the pre-trial discovery packet. The flooding occurred "pretty much the way experts said it would," Senior Engineer Joe Teresi told a reporter, according to the Feb. 5, 1998 Mercury News article.

Hanna was unmoved by the cities' argument that taking out the bridges would be a problem for the downstream residents, including those in East Palo Alto.

Palo Alto, he argued, has the right and responsibility to protect its residents.

Currently, the Joint Powers Authority -- a multi-governmental agency formed in the years after the flood -- is coordinating both short-term and long-term flood control efforts, and has secured some funds from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The overnight flood in 1998 was the result of a large and intense storm which deposited more than 4.5 inches of rain in the watershed. Flash flooding from 15 locations along San Francisquito Creek inundated more than 11,000 acres in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto.

Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at bdagostino@paweekly.com


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