San Jose Flood: Thousands Still Waiting for OK to Go Home

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San Jose's Fire Department rescues people caught in floodwaters on Feb. 21, 2017. (Peter Jon Shuler/KQED)

Update, 9:55 a.m. Thursday: Most of the 14,000 people forced to leave their homes by flooding southeast of downtown San Jose have been allowed to go home, city officials say.

But the city said Thursday morning that about 3,800 people from 1,100 residences are still under mandatory evacuation orders as crews work to pump water out of their inundated neighborhoods.

The city announced that much of an area west and north of a mandatory evacuation zone north of Interstate 280 and west of U.S. 101 had escaped serious flooding, and residents there were allowed to return.

But three areas remain evacuated -- see the city's official map -- as authorities try to drain standing water left behind after Coyote Creek, swollen with floodwater spilling from Anderson Reservoir, overflowed on Tuesday.

Those neighborhoods include the neighborhood immediately surrounding William Street Park, just south of downtown; the Rock Springs area, where flooding first occurred Tuesday afternoon; and three mobile home parks near Old Oakland Road in north San Jose.

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Of the three areas still under mandatory evacuation orders, Rock Springs appeared to be the hardest hit. Floodwaters were the deepest there, and a sewage pumping station that serves the neighborhood was inundated and knocked out of service.

City officials say they expect the bill for repairs to flooded property to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

On KQED's Forum program Thursday morning, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said the city needs to work with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which operates Anderson Reservoir, to find out why the available streamflow data for Coyote Creek failed to alert officials to the potential for widespread flooding.

"There are some technical issues that need to be resolved, and we need to figure quickly, because I know rains will continue this season," Liccardo said.

Jim Fiedler, the water district's chief operating officer, also appeared on Forum. He disputed suggestions that his agency was responsible for stream conditions near Rock Springs that some city officials have said may have contributed to flooding there.

"The particular stretch around one of those areas in question is property that's not owned by the water district," Fiedler said. "The area by Rock Springs in fact is owned by the city of San Jose. In fact, much of the stream land ... unless there's been improvements made over the years, are not owned by the district, so we don't regularly maintain those."

Update, 5:10 p.m. Wednesday: City officials say they're going house to house in neighborhoods inundated by floodwaters late Tuesday and early Wednesday to assess the extent of damage and decide when residents can return home.

Fire Department and other city crews are also pumping water out of mobile home parks and other areas where water that surged outside the banks of Coyote Creek has not receded naturally.

Although the city has issued a checklist of procedures for residents when they return to flooded homes, officials still haven't said when the 14,000 people forced to leave their homes will be able to return.

"There will be people allowed to return tonight," said Dave Sykes, director of the city's emergency operations center. Those areas cleared for residents to return would be posted on the city's website, he said.

Most of those evacuated were from three areas, the city said:

  • Mobile home parks near Old Oakland Road: South Bay Mobile Home Park, Golden Wheel, and River Bend Mobile Home Park
  • Neighborhoods near Williams Street Park
  • Rock Springs neighborhood

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Sapien said continuing concern about water that had been contaminated as it flowed the 30 miles from over-full Anderson Reservoir to San Francisco Bay was cited as the chief reason the mandatory evacuation order was still in place.

"The water between Anderson Lake to the end point of the bay in San Jose means it has traveled through every product source available between those two points," Sapien said. "That includes vehicle fuels, oils, any homes that may have had pesticides, any sewage backups that may have occurred, anything that was in the creekways."

Sapien advised anyone who comes into contact with the water to wash thoroughly.

Other developments:

  • The city said it would maintain emergency shelters at Evergreen High School and James Lick High School. Two other shelters were closed because they were lightly used, officials said.
  • The San Jose Water Co., which provides drinking water to the inundated area, advised customers its supplies are uncontaminated and safe to consume.
  • The city of San Jose has established a fund to help those affected by the flood. Donations can be made through the San Jose mayor's office -- or http://www.sjmayor.org -- or the Silicon Valley Community Foundation -- or https://www.siliconvalleycf.org/sjflood.

Update, 12:20 p.m.: San Jose officials say residents forced to leave their homes late Tuesday and early Wednesday by inundation along Coyote Creek should not return immediately because of concern about contaminated floodwater.

"The water is not safe," Mayor Sam Liccardo said during a media briefing Wednesday morning. "There is contamination in this water, and the contamination runs the gamut" from gasoline and oil to raw sewage.

"It is not safe for people to go into the water to go back to their homes," Liccardo said.

He added that the city was looking at whether it had done enough to alert residents along the path of the creek, which overflowed because of flood releases from the Santa Clara County Water District's Anderson Reservoir, that they might have to evacuate their homes.

"If the first time that 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's been a failure," Liccardo said. "We are assessing what it is that happened that led to that failure."

The mayor said about 400 residents had been rescued from their homes by emergency crews in boats.

City officials expressed uncertainty about exactly why the flooding happened when and where it happened. From the San Jose Mercury News account of their remarks:

Assistant City Manager Dave Sykes said the breach of the creek Tuesday morning in the Rock Springs neighborhood near Kelley Park “happened at a flow level much below the capacity of the channel.”

“That’s the issue we need to investigate,” Sykes said. “We were not anticipating flows to come out of the channel at that time. So we need to figure out what went on. Were there blockages? What were the issues that contributed to flows coming out of the channel at that point?”

Sykes later added: “We weren’t expecting to have issues at Rock Springs for many, many hours, and we certainly weren’t expecting Rock Springs to be the first place we had issues.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said “clearly there was a failure” leading to the unprecedented flooding that left some homes in nearly eight feet of water.

One failure, according to the mayor, is the city was told by the Santa Clara Valley Water District that the area wouldn’t flood unless water flow topped 7,400 cubic feet per second. But waters began creeping into neighborhoods well before that level.

“What we’re learning is the data’s wrong and we need to understand why that is,” Liccardo told this news organization following a press 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.”

Rachael Gibson, the district’s emergency operations center spokeswoman, said that model was based on “best available data,” and hydrologists were analyzing flow rates Wednesday afternoon. They did not immediately know what rate was reached on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Gibson added that other factors are tough or impossible to predict, such as blockages in the creek that could affect capacity.

Original post: Thousands of San Jose residents and city officials are facing a massive cleanup after overnight flooding along Coyote Creek prompted emergency evacuations in neighborhoods along the stream.

Although waters were slowly receding by dawn Wednesday, flooding was still a concern.

"Although the rain has largely stopped, flooding is continuing along Coyote Creek as reservoirs continue to spill and creek flow is extremely high," said Cheryl Wessling, a spokeswoman for the city's Emergency Operations Center, in an email early Wednesday.

Those high flows, which flooded the Rock Springs neighborhood southeast of downtown Tuesday afternoon, led to a 12:15 a.m. evacuation order covering about 14,000 people.

The city set up evacuation centers at the Mayfair and Shirakawa community centers, overnight shelters at Evergreen Valley and James Lick high schools, and winter warming centers at four library branches.

The inundation follows weeks of storms that have slammed the region. The last system in the most recent series of storms, on Presidents Day, hit the South Bay with particularly heavy rain.

The deluges have filled Anderson Reservoir to capacity, causing water to rush down the dam's spillway and into Coyote Creek. The stream flows through neighborhoods in South San Jose, then east of downtown to the bayside community of Alviso.

High water flooded a wide area southeast, east and northeast of downtown and prompted the 12:15 a.m. evacuation order for the area adjacent to Coyote Creek north of Interstate 280, west of U.S. 101 and south of Highway 237.

Flooding forced the closure of more than a dozen roads, including both directions of 101 between I-280 and I-880.

Santa Clara Valley Water District officials said Wednesday morning that their crews had completed temporary repairs to Coyote Canal, work that was aimed at preventing more flooding onto 101.

The expanded evacuation orders early Wednesday came hours after fire crews rushed to rescue hundreds of people in the city's Rock Springs neighborhood, where homes and cars were inundated under several feet of water.

City of San Jose map showing area where evacuations were ordered after Coyote Creek flooded.
City of San Jose map showing area where evacuations were ordered after Coyote Creek flooded.

"I don't have specific numbers for other water rescue operations, but I can tell you in my career this is probably the biggest," San Jose Fire Department Capt. Mitch Matlow said Tuesday afternoon. "In the history of San Jose, I don't know if it's been bigger, but this is probably in the top 10."

Andy Seoung was among the residents rescued by fire crews. "At some parts of the street the water is as high as your waist, my waist," Seoung said. "I'm 6 feet tall and my waist is about 30 inches off the ground."

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said Tuesday that officials suspect a breach of the creek's bank caused the rapid flooding in Rock Springs.

"Clearly, there's a source in the creek where there's a significantly large amount of water that's rushing in," Liccardo said.

KQED's Peter Jon Shuler contributed to this report.