Preparedness & Recovery

Flood Victims File Claims as New Records Show City Staff Tried to Sound Alarm Before Flooding

At least seven San Jose, Calif., city employees reported flooding in the three hardest hit neighborhoods nearly 24 hours before the city evacuated residents.

by Ramona Giwargis, The Mercury News / June 12, 2017
Rescue crews take out residents from a flooded neighborhood Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. Rescuers chest-deep in water steered boats carrying dozens of people, some with babies and pets, from a San Jose neighborhood inundated by water from an overflowing creek. AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

(TNS) - As the first victims of San Jose’s devastating Coyote Creek floods file claims against the city for damages, new documents provided in response to a public records request show that city employees started sending out specific alarms about the rising waters far earlier than previously revealed.

At least seven city employees reported flooding in the three hardest hit neighborhoods nearly 24 hours before the city evacuated residents.

City officials, who first opened evacuation centers at 7 a.m. on Feb. 20, have previously acknowledged that they took too long to tell residents to get out. By the time Dave Sykes, director of the city’s emergency operations center, issued an evacuation order at 10:48 a.m. Feb. 21, firefighters had been rescuing residents for hours.

But new documents reveal that city employees stationed at the creek observed the quickly rising waters and tried to communicate the threat. What remains unclear is exactly whom they told and why their warnings failed to provoke action.

According to a timeline prepared by Public Works’ Engineering Services Division Manager Patty Cannon, four to six people were monitoring water levels every day, starting a week before the flood. At 12:33 p.m. on Feb. 20 — a day before the neighborhood flooding — one worker reported via email that a pedestrian underpass on Berryessa Avenue was flooded with 18 inches of water, according to Cannon’s timeline.

Two hours later, Cannon reported flooding at a mobile home park on Oakland Road. One of her colleagues chimed in to say “water is approaching the homes” on William Street, another of the hard-hit neighborhoods.

By 10 p.m. that night, maintenance worker George Osuna reported that three homes on William Street were sitting in three feet of water and a home in Rock Springs, the third affected neighborhood, was “completely cut off.”

Early the next morning, Osuna again sounded the alarm. “The creek at Needles and Rock Springs has risen quickly within the past hour, please see new photos,” he wrote at 6:53 a.m. Tuesday. “The water is rising fast, we should inform people in neighborhoods of concern ASAP.”

The 6:53 a.m. email was sent to Cannon and about a half-dozen other Public Works officials stationed inside the emergency operations center.

But Sykes, who was there at the time and didn’t order evacuations until nearly five hours later, was not copied on that email, and said Osuna’s final warning never reached him.

Cannon said she doesn’t know why those who received Osuna’s email — and sat in the same room as Sykes — didn’t mention it to him.

“We’re trying to answer the same question,” Cannon said.

Sykes has previously said he didn’t realize flooding was underway until a field worker sent a photo to him of flooding in the Rock Springs area around 9:30 a.m. Feb. 21.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if we were getting information from the field that they’d seen signs of flooding, we would have done something,” Sykes said when asked about Osuna’s warnings. “We’re going to need to figure out a better way.”

The flooding led to 14,000 evacuations and caused $100 million in damage. San Jose officials have blamed the water district for estimating the creek could carry more water before flooding. The district has said information it provided the city should have been sufficient to trigger alerts.

In light of the new documents, Mayor Sam Liccardo reiterated that the city made mistakes.

“We have repeatedly acknowledged our failure to properly notify residents of the risk of flooding and for relying too heavily on the creek flow data provided by the water district,” Liccardo said.

Amanda Hawes, an attorney representing 30 households impacted by the flood that have yet to file claims, said it’s “demoralizing” that city workers’ warnings fell on deaf ears. She added that the information could bolster a negligence case against the city.

“The workforce on the front lines were doing everything in their power,” Hawes said. “If a public entity had prior notice of a developing emergency and took no action, they could be exposed to liability.”

Though City Manager Norberto Dueñas, Sykes and even the mayor were at the emergency center in the 24 hours before the flood, the new records show an unclear accounting of its staffing, with “check-in lists” missing time entries and names.

James McManis, a lawyer representing the water district, said “the idea that you can’t tell who was there and who did what is pretty bad in our opinion.”

Of the eight claims filed so far, five were against the water district and three against San Jose. The largest claims are from residents AnnaLisa Victoria Wilson, who lived in the Rock Springs neighborhood, and Patrick and Renay Falconio, who own a home on S. 20th Street.

San Jose City Attorney Rick Doyle would not comment on the claims, and water district officials did not respond to requests for comment. Doyle said San Jose has 45 days to decide whether to pay or deny the claims before victims can sue in court. Flood victims who already got money from a disaster relief fund would see those payouts deducted from their damages.

The Falconios, who filed claims against both the city and water district, want $229,414 for repairs, loss of rental income, diminished home value and emotional distress.

Wilson’s claim against the water district seeks $255,873 for new furniture, relocation costs and emotional distress. She wrote that when her mother opened the door of their Rock Springs apartment the morning of Feb. 21 to find a rush of icy cold, contaminated water lapping at their house, “what she didn’t know was that floodwaters had been making its way towards our home for hours.”

“You successfully erased 33 years of my life,” Wilson wrote in her claim. “You want to calculate my loses? You couldn’t even replace what I lost. I lost all trust in local government to do their jobs.”

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©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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