San Jose mayor: Clear ‘failure’ led to record flooding

SAN JOSE — A day after rescuers boated hundreds of people to safety during San Jose’s worst flooding in decades, city officials Wednesday let many of the 14,000 evacuated residents return home and blamed the sudden breach of Coyote Creek on bad information about its capacity.

The flooding followed a series of heavy rains that filled Anderson Reservoir to capacity. Downstream, Coyote Creek quickly swelled to four feet above flood level, cresting at 14.4 feet around 3 p.m. Tuesday and breaking a 95-year-old record of 12.8 feet set in 1922.

For many, the flooding came with no warning. Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledged residents should not have first learned of the danger when rescuers arrived by boat to evacuate them. Hundreds remained displaced Wednesday, with the city and Red Cross offering two high schools that are closed for spring break as overnight shelters that drew about 275 people.

Officials have yet to begin assessing damage to the neighborhoods, where the city has already issued health warnings about the dangerously polluted floodwaters, and it may be weeks before life is back to normal for residents in some of the most badly damaged homes.

Liccardo said Wednesday that the city relied on information from the Santa Clara Valley Water District that Coyote Creek could handle 7,400 cubic feet per second in the Rock Springs area before it would flood surrounding homes. But that wasn’t the case: The maximum flow recorded by the water district was 7,428 cubic feet per second about 1 p.m. Tuesday — only slightly higher than the expected capacity, but well after flooding had begun.

“What we’re learning is the data’s wrong and we need to understand why that is,” Liccardo told this news organization following a news conference Wednesday. “Obviously that’s something we need to undertake in partnership with other agencies that have the experts. We don’t have the hydrologists. They do.”

Water district officials acknowledged the flooding happened at a lower flow rate than anticipated, but said the district uses the best information it has.

“It’s what our model could best predict based on available data,” said Rachael Gibson, the district’s emergency operations center spokeswoman. “And we cannot predict if there were blockages or other conditions that would modify capacity.”

Gibson said the district notified the city about 3 a.m. Tuesday of increased water flows at a metering station upstream from Rock Creek.

All that was little comfort to Jean-Marie White, 46, a San Jose resident who lost the entire lower level of his home — including three bedrooms and a family room. White was in the middle of remodeling the backyard of his 16th Street home.

“If we had some advance notice, we could have moved the furniture upstairs,” White said, adding that he got his information from a Yahoo! community group instead of official agencies. “I feel like the city and the water district could have done a better job notifying us.”

City officials Wednesday afternoon had no estimate of how many homes were actually flooded, the cost of the damage, how many were displaced or how soon they could return. They said  246 people were rescued by boat Tuesday. The Coyote Creek flooding also temporarily closed Highway 101 in Morgan Hill on Tuesday and North San Jose Wednesday morning.

Liccardo and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation established a “San Jose Flood Victims Relief Fund” to help raise money for those who were displaced. By Wednesday afternoon it had received $150,000, including $100,000 from the Silicon Valley Auto Dealers Association, $20,000 from the San Francisco 49ers and $10,000 from the California Water Service. PG&E offered to match up to $20,000, and the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team pledged to match the first $10,000 donated through its fundraising page.

City officials Wednesday were surveying flooded neighborhoods to assess the damage. Liccardo was joined by Councilman Tam Nguyen and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-San Jose.

Jan Null, meteorologist for the Golden Gate Weather Service, said that what a given channel can carry in one year may differ from what that same channel can carry in the next year.

“If the channel becomes smaller for some reason,” such as a pileup of brush, then “an 11-foot-high” event could “give you the equivalent of a 12-foot” high event, he said.

A buildup of silt and plant growth in the Guadalupe River up through the early 1990s resulted in that channel having its capacity cut by 40 percent. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements have made it much more resistant to flooding. Gibson said Coyote Creek’s flooding was a clear example of why such improvements are needed on that corridor as well.

“This really underscores the importance of getting federal money for projects along major creeks like this,” she said. “You can see they’ve paid off elsewhere. We have pursued money for these purposes of flood protection in the past, but the government ultimately decided the benefit-to-cost ratio wasn’t great enough.”

San Jose fire Assistant Chief Robert Sapien said they’re preparing for more water that’s predicted to arrive over the weekend. They’re monitoring water levels, and continuing to drain Anderson Reservoir to try to keep it below overflow levels that could again exacerbate problems downstream.

It wasn’t the first time Coyote Creek has flooded — those who have lived along the water recall the El Niño waters of 1997 as well as a deluge in 1983 that caused particularly devastating flooding farther downstream in Alviso.

Eric Heckman, who has lived in the William Street area for 14 years, said he noted where the water had reached in 1997 and later renovated his backyard to fortify it against that benchmark. That wasn’t enough for this week’s storm.

“The level then was knee-high, but you can see the water level this time was up to here,” he said gesturing to his chest. “That was never anticipated.”

Hein Nguyen, 70, salvages a bag of clothes from her apartment on Nordale Ave. Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. Nguyen said, besides two bags of clothes, all of her belongings are ruined. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group)

Residents of S. 20th Street wade through the flooded street as the water recedes in their neighborhood on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 in San Jose, Calif.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

William Street Park was flooded after the previous day's storm in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Eric Heckman, bottom background, and his sons, Owen, 17, left, and Ethan, 14, right, start the water pump to drain the flooded back yard of their house that rests near the bank of the Coyote Creek in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Resident Thi Tran washes down his driveway along a flooded Rock Springs Drive in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

A house that rests on the bank of the Coyote Creek is remains flooded after the previous day's storm in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Peter Miskin looks at the damage inside his home on S. 20th Street on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 in San Jose, Calif., after water entered his home during the flood that took over his street Tuesday night. He and Gary Johnson evacuated last night with their dogs, passports and medication. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

San Jose native Gordon Smith tries to clear a storm drain of debris as he and his neighbors try to clear the water off Brookwood Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 in San Jose, Calif.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Eric Heckman works on draining the flooded back yard of their house that rests near the bank of the Coyote Creek in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

San Jose native Gordon Smith, left, tries to clear a storm drain of debris as he and his neighbors try to clear the water off Brookwood Avenue on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 in San Jose, Calif.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Hit by worst floods in a century, San Jose got little warning of impending disaster

Over the last two weeks, heavy rains pushed water levels at Santa Clara County’s largest reservoir into the danger zone, with officials warning it could overflow.

That happened over the weekend, sending massive amounts of water into the Coyote Creek, which runs through the heart of San Jose.

By Tuesday, the creek was overflowing at numerous locations, inundating neighborhoods, flooding hundreds of homes and forcing the frantic evacuations of more than 14,000 residents, who remained out of their homes Wednesday.

The worst flooding to hit Silicon Valley in a century left San Jose reeling and residents angry about why they were not given more warning that a disaster was imminent. Even city officials on Wednesday conceded they were caught off guard by the severity of the flooding and vowed a full investigation into what went wrong.

“If the first time a resident is aware that they need to get out of a home is when they see a firefighter in a boat, then clearly there has been a failure,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. “There is no question that we’ll need to do things differently next time.”

Late Wednesday, Assistant City Manager Dave Sykes said officials had learned that the information they had on the capacity of Coyote Creek channel was not accurate. He also said the city was working with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to determine whether debris caused blockages that contributed to flooding.

“The creek spilled over the banks faster and higher than anybody expected,” said city spokesman David Vossbrink.

Residents told harrowing stories of water flowing into homes and flooding streets. Many had to be rescued by boat. Some said they were surprised they did not get urgent warnings about the extent of the flooding.

“They didn’t say it was going to go up as high as it did,” said Louis Silva, 48. He said that his possessions were swallowed up in the flood and that the city should have warned people about the scale of the disaster with a cellphone text alert or by knocking on doors.

“They should’ve put the footwork in to show the urgency of the situation,” Silva said. “It hurt everyone. ... When Mother Nature shows up, she shows up.”

Dawn Rogers, 47, said she was in the mandatory evacuation zone but decided to hunker down instead of leave. She watched as firefighters took a boat down the street to rescue residents in homes that were flooded.

By 1 p.m. Tuesday, residents were rushing to fill up their cars with priceless valuables.

“It was scary,” Rogers said. “Being in a drought for all these years, you don’t ever think you’re ever in danger of a flood.”

Rob Souza, 49, thought he was prepared. He knew exactly where the floodwaters had previously risen on his William Street property, just west of Coyote Creek.

He spent eight hours Monday painstakingly building 3-foot walls of sandbags to protect his newly renovated cottage and his two-story home.

But by Tuesday morning, rising waters burst through the first sandbag wall, wrecking the cottage. Then Souza watched as the water rose to two feet above his home’s windowsill.

“It was like I was looking at an aquarium,” Souza said.

Then a window broke.

And then, Souza said, “it was all over.”

Anderson Reservoir, which is located in Morgan Hill about 22 miles south of downtown San Jose, had been releasing as much water as possible through its main outlet since Jan. 9, said Rachel Gibson, a spokeswoman for Santa Clara Valley Water District. The district was releasing water at a rate of 420 cubic feet per second through the reservoir’s outlet.

“We were trying to flood out as much water as we could in advance of any storms,” Gibson told reporters. “We have been pummeled by a number of storms since Jan. 9, so Anderson Reservoir was slowly filling up because more water was coming into it than we could practically let out of that outlet.”

Santa Clara water’s chief operating officer, Jim Fiedler, said his agency had been working in recent days with San Jose city officials on possible flood control options in case of a major event. He said the district had been in regular contact with city officials.

The situation came to a head over the weekend, when another round of heavy rain sent Anderson Reservoir over its tipping point, causing water to spill out of the lake and into Coyote Creek.

The first major flooding occurred Tuesday in the Rock Springs area of San Jose. San Jose firefighters paddled on rafts and waded through the chest-deep deluge, rescuing hundreds of residents trapped in homes and in trees.

Evacuation centers were set up at two community centers, where more than 300 residents stayed overnight. Two high schools were converted into overnight shelters, with dry clothes, food and cots.

Meanwhile, a damaged levee allowed water to flow onto U.S. 101 on Tuesday, forcing its temporary closure.

Coyote Creek slithers its way northwest from the reservoir to San Jose’s doorstep, where it proceeded to flood neighborhood after neighborhood, carving a destructive path through the heart of the city.

The creek crested to a height of 13.6 feet at a South San Jose river gauge point on Tuesday evening — nearly four feet above flood stage. The height shattered a previous record that had stood since 1922.

“This is a once-in-a-100-year flood event,” National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Gass said, referring to Coyote Creek’s surging height in South San Jose.

By Wednesday, the creek was no longer rising, but it was too late for some evacuees.

City officials said some residents could be allowed home as early as Wednesday night, though Liccardo had warned earlier in the day that the water was highly contaminated with fuel, oil and possible sewage and posed a potential health risk.

Officials said that on Thursday they would focus on assessing the damage and getting residents back home.

The approximately 14,000 people under mandatory evacuations hailed mostly from central San Jose. Evacuation advisories were also issued to 36,000 residents in a zone that covered a business and industrial area along a roughly seven-mile stretch of Coyote Creek.

By Wednesday evening, city officials had lifted some mandatory evacuations for homes north of Interstate 280. They also revised the number of residents impacted by evacuation advisories down to 22,000.

“We haven’t really had anything quite like this before,” Vossbrink said.

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