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January 04, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Weekend storms damage city Weekend storms damage city (January 04, 2006)

General flooding avoided, but anxiety levels high among residents

Bill D'Agostino, Don Kazak and Alexandria Rocha

It may not have wreaked anything close to the havoc of the 1998 flood, but the weekend's storms damaged Palo Alto homes and yards and raised anxiety levels as the water in city's creeks and storm drains rose.

All told, 2.52 inches of rain dropped on the area over the weekend. Wind, combined with the rain, created the most dramatic damage.

Steve Bisset stood outside his family's Fife Avenue home Tuesday, still shuddering at the memory of how a massive redwood tree crashed onto their house Saturday morning.

A large silver tarp covered the crumbled corner of the home, looking as if it had been smashed by a wrecking ball. Computer parts were tangled in the debris. One of the family's three cats crawled among the wreckage.

About 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, Bisset was half-awake in bed when he heard the crash.

"It was loud. My first thought was either an extremely close thunder clap or earthquake. Since I didn't see a flash of lightning, I just thought, 'No, I have a bad feeling about it,'" Bisset said.

After peeking outside, he saw one tree -- a 50-year-old redwood -- had snapped in two. It severely damaged the kitchen and an office nook, where family members often use the Internet.

"We did a very quick bed check," he said. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Bisset has lived in the home for about 10 years. He and his wife, Mei-yee, and their 2-year-old daughter, Lai-ling, live there full-time while Bisset's two other children -- Trevor and Alison -- split the time with their mother.

The felled redwood tree was planted in 1955 in the home's front yard. Although it was difficult to estimate its exact height, Bisset said the tree was on par with the Crescent Park neighborhood's tallest redwoods, standing well over 100 feet.

During the storm, the tree's top 75 feet snapped off. It took out an entire front corner of the Bisset's house, and on its way down smashed the family's Toyota sedan parked in the driveway and knocked down the fence shared with neighbors. Bisset said the top of the tree barely missed the same neighbors' house.

"It's kind of unusual it would snap halfway up. The thought is that there was something unhealthy about it, though it looked fine," Bisset said.

Bisset didn't know on Tuesday how much the house damage would cost to repair. The car damage will cost $5,500, he said, and the tree company charged $1,500 to haul away the redwood. It took two workers from Woodside's International Tree Experts about six hours to chop up the tree.

Lindell Bennett of the tree company said he hasn't seen this much storm damage since the early '80s.

"It's bad. And it's everywhere," he said.

Through the chaos, Bisset has kept a positive attitude. The family was able to stay with neighbors the first three nights after the tree fell and moved into a nearby condo on Tuesday. His family has insurance, he said. He then referred to the millions of Pakistan earthquake victims who are currently weathering a harsh winter in tents.

"We're fortunate," he said.

Large trees were down throughout the city -- at the bike path next to Alma Street, near Embarcadero Road and at Matadero Creek near Bol Park, according to various reports.

Elsewhere in the city, two residents reported having water seep into their basements, according to Palo Alto Fire Chef Nick Marinaro. Power also went out Saturday in the south Palo Alto neighborhood near Emerson Avenue and Waverley Street.

Neighbors of the Chaucer Street Bridge over the San Francisquito Creek kept close eyes on the water level Saturday and breathed a collective sigh of relief when the level receded just as it reached the top.

The creek very nearly overbanked there and in a few other places, according to the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta.

"It was very, very close," she said.

According to a gauge run by the United States Geological Survey, the creek was running up to 4,840 cubic feet per second -- the fourth highest flow-rate level recorded since such monitoring began in 1950, D'Agosta said.

One Palm Street home had creek waters flood the basement, but the structure's foundation was built in the creek itself, Marinaro said.

Numerous blocks of University Avenue, around Chaucer Street, did flood -- due to storm-drain problems rather than creek overflow.

"It looked like a flood was coming but it was actually just the storm drains backing up," said Norman Beamer, the president of the Crescent Park Neighborhood Association.

One lane of U.S. Highway 101 and a section of West Bayshore Road were also closed for parts of Saturday.

On Saturday morning at 8:35 a.m., the city put its Emergency Operations Center, located in the basement of City Hall, into action. Palo Alto firefighters went door-to-door helping and alerting residents and initiating a voluntary evacuation for homes on Palo Alto Avenue. For residents wanting to evacuate, the Palo Alto Red Cross activated a shelter at the Cubberley Community Center.

From the Emergency Operations Center, city officials called 1,630 phone numbers to warn of potential flooding, using a phone system put in place after the creek jumped its banks in 1998. That system has its limits, though -- only approximately 1,500 to 1,600 phone calls can be made per hour. The Police Department, this summer, sought funding for new technology to make additional calls.

Both the Red Cross shelter and Emergency Operations Center closed at 3 p.m. after creek waters receded.

Sandbags were in high demand Saturday, and the ones available at the Palo Alto Airport occasionally ran out. The Santa Clara Valley Water District is responsible for providing them.

"We tried to keep up as best as we can," said water district Board member Greg Zlotnick.

The airport was stocked Thursday with 5,800 bags, and was restocked over the weekend with 13,000 more sandbags, according to water district spokesman Mike Di Marco.

In addition, the water district provided 2,200 filled sandbags at Duveneck Elementary School, which was also restocked three times Saturday and Sunday, Zlotnick said.

On Saturday, the City of Palo Alto asked for volunteers to fill bags for elderly residents at a sandbag station at Greer Park, according to police agent Kara Apple.

Throughout the weekend, a popular Web site with residents was the city-run display of Palo Alto's creek levels, which also showed a real-time image of the creek at the Chaucer Street Bridge.

Numerous neighborhood-association e-mail lists referred their members to consult the site. The real-time image of the creek, however, went down on Saturday, replaced by the message: "We're Sorry! The Creek Monitor Is Out of Service."

In an e-mail to neighbors living near the creek, Vice Mayor Judy Kleinberg -- who will likely be named mayor at next week's City Council meeting -- wrote that "Emergency and disaster preparedness will be my top priority in the coming year -- beginning this week."

Meanwhile, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority staff will be meeting on Thursday to discuss the storm and will put out a report on Friday about what it learned. The 14-mile-long creek is the border between Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

The multi-jurisdictional authority recently signed an agreement with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to partner on a project to help prevent creek flooding and protect its natural habitat. An April public meeting is planned to explore ideas. Such a project would take numerous years, though.

On Jan. 30, neighbors of the creek will present ideas to the Palo Alto City Council about ways to prevent flooding in the meantime. Those neighbors hope to replace the bridge, or expand its capacity.

The Fire Department , meanwhile, will present a report to the city manager at a future date, and will recommend a policy for opening the emergency center earlier. Currently, the center opens when the San Francisquito Creek is at 80 percent capacity, Fire Chef Nick Marinaro said.

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