Features & Columns

Still No Answers

Residents displaced by last month's flood disaster in San Jose are still searching for answers while the city and water district assign blame
More than 500 households in San Jose remained displaced by the floods in February.

Mong-Van Fousek hobbled into San Jose City Hall with all she has left in the world: a backpack and canvas tote full of clothes, toiletries and a few snacks.

"I can't leave it at the shelter," she said, "or someone might take it."

The 71-year-old widow lost everything else in the flood that devastated several neighborhoods along Coyote Creek over two days in late February. But she didn't come to complain at Thursday's public hearing, the first since the disaster. After two weeks of enduring cramped quarters at the Seven Trees Community Center shelter, Fousek said, she simply wants to know when she can go back to her apartment in Rock Springs.

"I need the city to help me," she said, leaning on her walker after publicly addressing her elected officials. "I'm a low-income senior."

Fousek was one of well over 100 people who packed the Council Chamber to plead for help and demand answers about local governments' fumbled response to the flood.

Residents wanted to know why the city failed to notify them in time to evacuate their homes. They wanted to know why the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) gave flawed projections about how much water the creek could handle before flooding. They wanted to know why Santa Clara County public health officials have yet to address the outbreak of rashes, stomach bugs, coughs and other ailments caused by the filthy floodwater.

"I have a really bad cough," said Rosario Solis, who addressed Mayor Sam Liccardo and his City Council colleagues on behalf of her family of eight. "My chest hurts, my stomach, everything hurts. At the shelter, everybody's sick there. I just need a home."

She was especially concerned about her daughter, who came down with pneumonia and went from weighing 124 to 98 pounds, she said. Two days before the hearing, Solis had taken her to the hospital.

"They're asking me to keep her in a clean place," she told city officials, "but I can't because I don't have a home." She added, "I don't want to lose my daughter."

Lesson Learned?
Clearly, local authorities were woefully unprepared for the flood that struck creekside communities last month. The post-flood response has been a ludicrous comedy of errors. While there were some high-profile photo ops of Mayor Liccardo and Councilman Peralez hauling waterlogged mattresses out of soaked apartments, the recovery efforts seem to have been as shambolic as the run-up to the flood.

It took until this week for mud-coated streets to be pressure-washed and rid them of their toxic residue. Huge, old-growth oak trees, still alive, lie tipped over in William Park, their roots drying in the sun. Piles of damaged sheet rock, furnishings and sandbags appear daily on streets for collection, weeks after the disaster.

Ten days after the flood, residents in non-flooded homes received Red Cross care packages: a quart of bleach, a quart of Pine Sol, a quart of Chlorox cleaner, a mop head, a squeegie, a corn broom head, a stiff brush and an extendable pole.

The aftershock of these failure are not only being felt now but will continue to reverberate into the months and years ahead, as local agencies may not qualify for federal disaster aid.

Metro has learned that both San Jose and the water district have lapsed in getting a Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) completed and approved, which is required to receive non-emergency disaster assistance from FEMA. The water district has yet to provide information on why its LHMP lapsed, but David Vossbrink, a city spokesman, noted in an email that San Jose has been out of compliance since 2015. Any efforts to prevent future disasters from occurring could be hampered by both agencies failing in their obligation to have a LHMP approved. This means the financial burden will likely fall to taxpayers.

Vossbrink told Metro that the county's Office of Emergency Services is overseeing the LHMP application for "all the cities and local agencies in the county" and plans to submit it by April 15. The water district is apparentyl not part of this collaborative effort.

Residents packed City Hall Thursday for the first public hearing about the Coyote Creek flood.

In a presentation before the public comment portion of last week's meeting, city officials rattled off a play-by-play of the disaster. They described how the waters poured from the brimming Anderson Reservoir, over the emergency spillway and down Coyote Creek into neighborhoods and businesses all the way up to North Valley. Using maps provided by the water district, they showed where they were told to expect flooding at certain flow rates—and how those projections were far, far too low.

Catherine Sandoval, a Santa Clara University law professor, said in a short speech and more detailed letter that the water dwwistrict's predictive models may have been wildly off base but that anyone with a smartphone could have been alerted to the coming disaster. Besides that, she said, public officials should know by now that when the Anderson Reservoir spills, a flood is imminent.

Even as 5 feet of water seethed through doors and windows of people's homes on Feb. 21, the city held fast to the water district's projections of minor flooding. Yet data from river gauges all along Coyote Creek, which was available online for anyone to see, showed the flood stage approaching by Feb. 19—two full days before the flood.

"We need to look at height, not just river flow," Sandoval said.

By Feb. 20, Coyote Creek swelled to 10 feet at the Edenvale gauge. By the next day, it topped 14.4 feet—well over the flood threshold—hours before San Jose issued mandatory evacuation orders. The Madrone gauge reached 9 feet on Feb. 20 and crested at 12-plus feet a day later. The William Street gauge marked 22.42 feet early on Feb. 17—the weekend before the flood—and peaked at 33.41 feet when the waters poured over the William Street Park and into homes around Naglee, Olinder, Brookwood Terrace and three mobile home parks along Old Oakland Road.

"Better analysis is a predicate for better notice," Sandoval said.

Seventy-two-year-old Bambi Moise, whose Naglee Park home flooded by where a giant eucalyptus tree toppled into the creek, scolded the city for not using common sense.

"When Anderson overflows, there is a flood, and everyone of you should know that," she said. "You don't need all these 'cubic feet per second' to know. ... I'm an old lady, and I could predict this. It seems a lot of you people should've been able to predict this as well."

To give people advance notice in the event of a flood or another disaster, the city announced a new three-tiered warning system. Yellow, issued up to 72 hours in advance, warns of possible flooding; orange, issued a day ahead, indicates the likelihood of flooding; and red, issued up to six hours in advance, cautions imminent flooding and orders evacuations.

That warning system would also require "boots on the ground" and door knocking, Assistant City Manager Dave Sykes explained. It would also include digital alerts in Spanish and Vietnamese, which was lacking before this past flood. Another of Sandoval's criticisms pointed to the city's failure to account for Silicon Valley's "digital divide," the fact that many low-income and non-English speaking residents don't have readily available Internet access.

City spokesman David Vossbrink said the city also realized when it was too late that it had no way to notify businesses after hours.

"There's a lot of work that we need to do," he said.

The city relied on Santa Clara County's AlertSCC, an emergency messaging system that sends warnings to emails, landlines and smartphones. But Vossbrink said the city plans to partner with the county to send those messages not only to subscribers, which make up just 3 percent of the total South Bay population, but to anyone in the geographic area.

"We didn't have the tools available to us," Vossbrink said.

It should be noted that the city actually did have the ability to use AlertSCC on its own, but no one was trained to use it. When the city finally asked the county to send messages on its behalf, the floods had already overwhelmed hundreds of homes and prompted emergency rescues.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gives local governments a chance to become certified to issue alerts based on geography rather than subscription, but only the county has obtained that authorization. The city can, if it chooses, apply for that same clearance.

Until then, however, the city could also rely on other agencies to send out geographically based alerts on its behalf. The National Weather Service offered to do so a number of times in a series of multi-agency conference calls before the flood, according to David Flamm, the deputy director for the county's Office of Emergency Services.

Other recommendations floated by the city Thursday include maintaining the river channels, making sure they're clear of vegetation, and pressuring the water district to erect floodwalls around Rock Springs.

The water district sent only one person to the meeting: spokesman Rick Callender, who presented a letter from district Chairman John Varela. The letter brought up an important issue on which the water district and the city disagree: who is responsible for keeping Coyote Creek clear from downed trees, brush and trash?

City Attorney Rick Doyle said San Jose might own property along the creek, but no statute indicates that the city should clean adjacent waterways.

"The water district has that ability," Doyle said.

Callender admitted that there's been a breakdown in communication between the district and the city in the two decades since the last big flood in 1997. He also said the water district was planning to host a community meeting April 28—more than six weeks from now—to hear from the communities that flooded.

The district later announced it will hold three community meetings in April, but those dates have still not been announced.

Councilman Tam Nguyen said he plans to hold a meeting much sooner, March 23 at Tully Library, and water district staff is welcome to attend. Nguyen added that the flood got him thinking about a number of other disasters the city needs to prepare for.

"I would hope that we learn from this and that we're prepared for another disaster that's more prone to happen, which is an earthquake in this area," he said. "I hope that this is a warning, that this is a lesson learned."

Power of the Pen
Any lessons learned from the San Jose flood disaster, which has caused at least $100 million in property damage, will require collaboration between the city and water district. A sharply worded letter from Mayor Liccardo on Monday to district Chair Varela, followed by an equally combative retort through local media outlets, suggests the blame game is unlikely to abate any time soon.

Liccardo's letter lamented the district's decision to not send anyone with real insight—"engineers, hydrologists or managers with relevant expertise"—to Thursday's hearing.

"We need answers to many important questions to prevent this kind of damage from happening again," Liccardo wrote, noting that city staff "identified inaccurate water district data regarding channel capacity and the repeatedly flawed estimates of flooding risk as key obstacles to providing timely notice to residents."

The mayor's letter also said the city has accepted "responsibility for fixing the shortcomings in our emergency preparation and warnings."

The water district has refused to do the same, because—according to the district—it's blameless.

"SCVWD followed the procedures and protocols necessary for a substantial weather event such as this one," Varela wrote in a response to Liccardo's letter. "We want to find factual, real, engineering and communication solutions to the issues faced by all. We believe that working together for the benefit of all residents is more important than short-term political theater."

In a follow-up interview, Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the water district, said he could not identify a single issue the water district could have handled better in the days and hours leading up the flood.

"I think our staff made the best analysis with the information they had available," he said.

Varela's news release included a brief timeline of communications between him and the mayor leading up to the public hearing, and he argued that the city received all the information it needed from the district "hours in advance" of the special meeting.

The district chair added that the mayor declined a joint meeting invitation between the council and district board. It's not clear how this would work, or when it would take place, but the mayor called Varela's account a mischaracterization of the conversation.

"No, I said I would be happy to do it but we have a public hearing that's scheduled and the next joint meeting between the city and district isn't for a couple months," Liccardo told Metro in an interview Tuesday.

Varela also defended the district's decision to send Callender as its lone representative at the special meeting.

"We are interested in facts, not blame, which only serves to dishonor those who have been harmed and displaced by the flood waters," Varela said.

Communications between the water district and city of San Jose, obtained through a public records request, reveal that both sides were aware of the flooding danger from an upcoming storm and were exchanging a flurry of information. But that stopped when water district management stepped in before the floodwaters hit and restricted the communication.

Nearly two weeks before San Jose neighborhoods flooded, a city engineer asked the water district about rising creek levels.

"Good morning," Casey Hirasaki, an engineer who works for the city of San Jose, wrote on Thursday, Feb. 9. "There was mention around office yesterday that Coyote Creek was running high, near top of bank, and that there was also a plan to release from Anderson Dam."

The following Tuesday, a week before the flood, Hirasaki again emailed a counterpart at the district, saying, "We were on a conference call this morning with City departments and SCVWD discussing rain forecast and possible Anderson Dam spill later this week. We have been asked to create a map of City hot-spots as well as the Coyote Creek locations you identified."

On Thursday morning, water district associate civil engineer Jack Xu warned San Jose's Shelley Guo that "there is a big one coming next week ... with the major events occurring Monday/Tuesday. If that hits as predicted we might be in big trouble."

Xu also sent over some maps that correctly predicted the Rock Springs flooding, though they failed to highlight the overflow that besieged the Olinder neighborhood on the East Side and parts of Naglee Park.

"Jack: Wow, the map is great, thank you!" Hirasaki emailed back.

The lovefest was short-lived.

On Friday, Feb 17, Xu wrote an apologetic message saying he had to cut off communication. "So unfortunately we got some pushback from our management about us communicating directly to you guys at our levels and the District having different outlets of information for the forecasts, so I was told to relay information through the appropriate channels (sorry)."

The rains hit on Monday and Tuesday and, as predicted, Rock Springs flooded. Both the city and the water district knew that would be the outcome and had been discussing emergency preparations in the week leading up to the $100 million disaster.

But nobody told the residents whose homes were in harm's way until the water approached their doorsteps.

Toxic Stew
After battling the city, insurance companies and contractors to repair some $250,000 worth of damage to his William Street home, Garry Johnson said he now has to deal with inexplicable rashes and other maladies. When the flood crept to his door, he said at last week's hearing, he gathered his medications, his passport and his dogs—all he could manage to carry—and waded out into the rank water.

"I carried my dogs out through wastewater that was up to my thighs," said Johnson, a nurse who earns too much to qualify for some of the disaster aid being offered by local nonprofits. "I am still scratching, I am still itching, and a number of my neighbors were affected in the same way."

For weeks now, Johnson said, he's been asking public health officials to tell people what was in the water and how to treat the symptoms it caused.

"We don't know what's on the grass, what's on the rocks in our yards," he said. "But we know that it's a toxic stew."

Moms holding babies sobbed at the podium. Elderly Vietnamese women spoke about feeling unsafe and worried about their grandchildren staying at the temporary shelters, where they said people have been sneaking in booze and drugs. They wondered aloud what will happen to them after the shelters close, the motel vouchers run out and the state and federal disaster aid has yet to come.

Juanita Wilson, left, and Mong-van Fousek both demanded answers from city officials at Thursday's public hearing. Photo by Jennifer Wadsworth

Others asked why recovery efforts seem to gloss over the needs of the homeless, who lost their tents, shanties, blankets, backpacks and clothes in the flood. Jolene Jones—a member of the Winter Faith Collaborative, a network of local religious organizations that offers shelter and other necessities to the homeless—said the flood will create "a new crop" of at least 180 unhoused people.

"We need to do more than just write checks," she said. "We need case management, too."

The volunteer collaborative not only provides shelter, but it also opens up church parking lots to anyone who needs a safe place to spend the night in their car. Jones said the city should offer that as well, considering that the volunteer group is way over capacity. She also criticized the way nonprofits have been delegating flood recovery money only to victims who were housed at the time of the flood.

"Homeless people are not getting services," she said. "They're being systematically erased out of this discussion."

Councilman Raul Peralez urged the city to offer counseling services to people dealing with depression and anxiety because of having to start all over after the flood.

"The trauma is real, especially for people who have been traumatized before," Deputy City Manager Kip Harness said. "We're a little bit later than we should be on this one, but we're going to make sure that these mental health issues are being addressed."

Juanita Wilson, a 66-year-old instructional aide who's living indefinitely at the Seven Trees shelter, said she's spent the past two weeks cycling in and out of depression and anxiety. Her apartment on Nordale Avenue is destroyed, and she worries about where her daughter will stay when she visits from medical school next month.

"I'm having trouble putting my life together," Williams said, trailing off before letting out a heavy sigh. "I'm having trouble even putting a sentence together."

Three weeks after the flood, more than 500 households remain displaced. To accommodate people who have been unable to return home, the City Council on Tuesday declared a "shelter crisis," which suspends certain housing regulations and allow flood victims to sleep in community centers and libraries through at least April.

Last month's flooding created a new crop of homeless people, but it also displaced people who were un-housed to begin with. Already, San Jose was grappling with how to accommodate more than 4,000 unsheltered residents. About 2,800 of them are un-housed on a given night. Nearly 800 live in camps and shantytowns along local waterways.

Money for HomeFirst, a local housing nonprofit that manages shelters, will come from the general fund, which includes a $5.2 million allotment for housing the homeless. The city's housing department will petition for reimbursement from FEMA.

But there will be limits to assistance provided. City officials have admitted fault for failing to prepare for and respond quickly to the flood, while also blaming a lack of staffing and budget cuts for some of the lapses. They have promised to learn from their mistakes.

"There have been many moments of wondering what we could've done differently," City Manager Norberto Dueñas said. "Unfortunately, in life there is no rewind button."

Life also doesn't have a fast-forward button. With the rainy season still in full swing, Mayor Liccardo admits that the lack of cooperation between the water district and city could be endangering the lives and property of local residents.

"The public is demanding answers now, and perhaps more importantly we need answers so we can fix this so it doesn't happen again," Liccardo said. "As long as Anderson Reservoir continues to teeter above 95 percent capacity, the danger is very real."

The mayor's count is a bit high—Anderson Reservoir was at 91.3 percent capacity as of 2:30pm Tuesday—but, like the tempestuous relationship between the two agencies tasked with protecting flood victims, there is no guarantee the storms have come to an end.