by Don Kazak

Our Town: The flood next time

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 17, 1998

Our Town: The flood next time

For most of us, the disastrous Feb. 2-3 flood is just a dim memory. My sandbags are stacked in the storage shed of my apartment complex, mute testimony that, for a while here, reality was decidedly different than we had grown used to. The Palo Alto City Council closed the books on the flood last week, so to speak, by accepting a staff report full of self-criticism of the errors made during the city's emergency response that night.

For a surprising number of people in Palo Alto, though, the flood is more than just a dim memory.

During a City Council meeting last month, a St. Francis neighborhood resident reported some surprising numbers to city officials. Michael Sporer said he did a survey of homes on six streets near his house that had been damaged by the flood.

Sporer said he was able to get information for about one-third to one-half of those homes. He said 15 homes were still uninhabitable and had suffered, on average, $97,000 in damage. He found an additional 31 homes that were occupied, sometimes out of necessity, with an average damage cost of $27,000.

Another speaker told the council that as many as 400 Palo Alto homes were damaged in the flood. Maureen McNulty said a lot of anger and frustration--much of it directed at city officials--remains for what she characterized as a lack of both empathy for the difficulties residents have had and leadership from the city.

In the aftermath of the flood, city officials are participating in a planning process to eventually reduce the chance of future flooding from San Francisquito Creek. And, if flood waters do rise again, the city vows to literally give people a wake-up call.

The council last week approved a plan to buy an emergency warning system that can be implemented if the city is ever hit by another flood like the one of Feb. 2-3.

Fire Chief Ruben Grijalva said the telephone system has the best chance of providing real warning in a citywide emergency. A system of loud air-raid sirens favored by some, he noted, doesn't give any information on what kind of emergency is happening, what people should do or, if they need to evacuate, which direction they should go.

Hopefully, one of the lessons the city learned was that during an emergency, people need information. Council member Gary Fazzino applauded the addition of a warning system, but he also said city staff stumbled in communicating with the public. City officials need to be more responsive to the public, he said, which is always a good idea.

City Manager June Fleming also noted that if we have another middle-of-the-night flood like Feb. 2-3, the fire engines will "make as much noise as possible" going to emergency calls to help wake people up.

Most of the anger that flooded-out residents have toward the city, in the words of one, is that the city declared a state of emergency and didn't try to tell anyone. Paula Sandas and Dennis Harvey were flooded out of their Oregon Avenue home at 3 a.m. Feb. 3. They lost about $30,000 of computer equipment and one of their cars.

The flood was especially disastrous--or so it seemed--for Sandas and Harvey because they were in the process of selling their home to buy another one. They were ready to take offers on their house when the flood struck.

All bets were off after the flood, since their home was damaged. But this is one flood story with a happy ending.

Sandas said they gave up on the home they had wanted to buy because it, too, was in the flood plain, and they didn't want any part of floods anymore.

But Sandas and Harvey found, purchased and recently moved into a new home in the relatively flood-safe College Terrace neighborhood. And while they had to sell their flood-damaged Oregon Avenue home for less than they had planned, the sales commission was lower, too, so their net loss was relatively small.

But, as Sandas added, the whole experience and trauma of being flooded is a life event difficult to fully recover from, even if there are happy endings.

Don Kazak is a Weekly senior staff writer.

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