The San Jose Flood: What Went Wrong and How the City Plans to Fix It

A Ford Bronco rests in floodwaters on Feb. 22, 2017, in the Rock Springs neighborhood of San Jose. (Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)

A new report could give insight into why San Jose failed to notify more than 14,000 residents that their neighborhoods were under a flood threat in February.

The report, commissioned by San Jose and conducted by emergency management consultant Witt O’Brien's, gave the city an "A" for how it responded after the Feb. 21 flood but an "F" for foresight.

It was also critical of the way the city handled notifying residents, such as Juanita Wilson, who was living in the Rock Springs neighborhood when the flood occurred. That area is near Coyote Creek, which floods whenever Anderson Dam overflows. South of San Jose, the dam was built in 1950.

"We had no warning from the city, none from the county, nothing at all," Wilson said.

A night photo of the pole Jeffrey Hare uses to measure Coyote Creek water levels. This photo was taken on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, two days before the neighborhood was flooded. (Courtesy of Jeffrey Hare)

As the floodwaters were reaching her neighborhood, she was preparing for a trip to the DMV. As she grabbed her keys to head to the door, she heard firefighters yelling over a loudspeaker.

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"I'm like, what are you talking about," Wilson said. "So I opened the door and there was water everywhere and I just kept thinking, I can't go. I can't get out!"

Wilson's neighbor, Jeffrey Hare, had known for days that the flood was coming and he was frantic.

"We were trying to contact the city, we were trying to contact the water district, we were trying to contact anyone we could," Hare said. "We couldn’t get through to any of them."

Four days before the flood, Hare had begun taking water level readings of Coyote Creek using a pole to measure its rise. He installed that pole in 1997, when he saw the creek overflow the first time. It was Super Bowl Sunday and the city had failed to alert residents. Hare said he had to knock on doors to warn his neighbors. Twenty years later, as the creek began to rise again, Hare was back knocking on those doors.

"When I called emergency dispatch, they put me in touch with the San Jose Water Co.," Hare said. "They said they were sending out a technician. I told them I'm not reporting a leak. I'm reporting a flood."

Naglee Park resident Jeffrey Hare points to the flood line of his neighbor's home off Coyote Creek. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

By the time San Jose issued an evacuation order, Juanita Wilson was already standing waist-deep in floodwaters.

"I didn’t know what to do. I felt lost," she said. "I didn’t know what to get, what to do."

She didn’t know what to do because there was no universal alert system in place to notify residents, despite the fact that it had been recommended after the flood in 1997. The recent analysis report from Witt O'Brien's noted that in the case of this latest flood, San Jose failed to learn anything from the 1997 event.

Warnings that did go out from the city were posted primarily on social media sites. Few residents in the largely low-income Rock Springs neighborhood got those warnings. Most speak Spanish or Vietnamese, and not everyone is online.

Floodwaters surround a play structure on Feb. 22, 2017, in San Jose, California. ( Noah Berger AFP/Getty Images)

Hare said city officials knew the flood was coming and didn’t act. Public records show that officials had exchanged emails, had conference calls and had met in person to discuss the possibility of a flood.

"Unbeknownst to us at the time, the city and the water district had been meeting for seven days prior to the flood," Hare said.

Why didn’t the city act fast enough to designate the flood an emergency? The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which is in charge of overseeing flood control, said it notified the city days before that a flood was imminent.

And for days, field workers sent emails and photos to city officials showing the rising waters, but there was no action. There was nobody to coordinate a response. One reason was that the emergency management director position was vacant and had been for months.

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It wasn’t until the water started rushing into the homes of residents like Juanita Wilson that an emergency evacuation was finally issued.

"I really feel, you know, let down and disappointed that they thought so little of us," Wilson said.

For several months afterward, she lived in a shelter. She just recently found an apartment two hours away from her job as an instructional assistant at an elementary school.

Sometimes Wilson said she has flashes of what she lost. Like the Christmas ornaments her now-adult children made for her when they were kids. And at 66 it feels weird, she said, to be starting over.

"You just have to go from where you are," she said. "You kind of work with the hand you're dealt."

Juanita Wilson (right) leaving the Santa Clara County Housing Authority with her daughter, Annalisa. Wilson lost all of her belongings in the Coyote Creek flood. (Tonya Mosley/KQED)

Wilson wants the city to put in place systems to make certain residents aren’t victimized by flooding again. She is among more than 150 flood victims who are filing claims against the city for failure to provide proper notice. They’re also filing claims against the Santa Clara Valley Water District for failing to prevent Anderson Dam from overflowing, and Santa Clara County for failing to set up an alert system that would have notified everyone in time to save their belongings.

Since the flood, San Jose officials say they've implemented key changes to the city's emergency response.

  • Last March, San Jose hired Ray Riordan as the emergency management director.
  • The city is implementing a new three-tiered warning system. Yellow: issued up to 72 hours in advance of flooding. Orange: issued a day ahead, when there is a likelihood of flooding. Red: issued up to six hours in advance of an evacuation.
  • Deployment of the “L-Rad” system. This is a long-range acoustic device that can notify people from far away to evacuate. These messages will be in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District recently announced a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study for reducing flood risks on Coyote Creek.

This is the second time the district has partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers. In 2000, the two agencies partnered to look at flood protection for the Rock Springs neighborhood of San Jose. The study found that the project would cost too much, and further work was scraped.

According to Santa Clara Valley Water District Supervisor Marty Grimes, the agency has been clearing out channel blockages, repairing structures, removing debris and clearing invasive and non-invasive vegetation from Coyote Creek. The district is also in the midst of preparing a plan for temporary flood measures for the Rock Springs neighborhood.