San Jose, Calif., Floods: Damages Expected to Top $73 Million

Donations to a relief fund for flood victims neared $940,000 on Monday, but city officials said state and federal assistance is needed to help with cleanup costs.

by Ramona Giwargis and Paul Rogers, The Mercury News / February 28, 2017

(TNS) -San Jose, Calif., officials on Monday estimated the devastating Coyote Creek flooding caused at least $73 million in damage to public and private property, but that figure is expected to grow as officials wade through three ravaged neighborhoods.

“This is the first step in seeking potential state and federal emergency assistance,” said Dave Sykes, director of the city’s Emergency Operations Center. “I believe the number we have given is fairly conservative. It wouldn’t surprise me if these costs go up.”

By Monday afternoon, 479 properties remained “yellow-tagged” — down from 1,335. That means residents should enter those homes at their own risk and that electricity and gas may not be available.

Roughly 120 residents remained displaced and stayed at an overnight shelter at Seven Trees Community Center Sunday night through Monday. Donations to a relief fund for flood victims neared $940,000 on Monday, but city officials said state and federal assistance is needed to help with cleanup costs.

An application to the Santa Clara County Office of Emergency Services — the first step in seeking state and federal aid — on Monday tallied the initial costs of the flooding at $50 million in private damage and $23 million to public property, including Happy Hollow Park. It’s unclear when any aid might be approved.

Nearly a week after 14,000 residents were evacuated, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said he will ask the City Council on Tuesday to set a date for a series of public meetings to determine, among other things, why most people received no warning from the city before floodwaters devastated neighborhoods in Rock Springs, near William Street Park and along Old Oakland Road.

“We’re going to identify those short, medium and long-term tasks that we need to get accomplished to ensure this never gets repeated,” Liccardo said in an interview Monday. “We will be assembling an action plan focusing on the short-term, most urgent issues initially.”

The public meetings — likely beginning next Thursday and to be held during the day and evenings — will examine why residents weren’t alerted about the flooding until after contaminated water rushed into their homes, rising up to their chests.

Liccardo said he’s invited the county and the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board of Directors to attend.

The invitation comes after a week of finger-pointing between the city and water district over fallout from the flooding, including who is responsible for removing debris from Coyote Creek.

Liccardo said water district board Chairman John Varela indicated he’ll participate, but Varela said Monday he hasn’t gotten information about the meetings from the mayor’s office. Still, Varela added, he supports the idea of both agencies coming together in the same room.

“I don’t mind meeting with the mayor. But, at some point, the entire City Council and the entire Board of Directors need to sit down and talk about this,” Varela said. “We need to collaborate and look at ways to fix this and prevent it from happening again.”

Some flood victims have questioned whether San Jose’s opposition to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies will jeopardize the city’s chances of receiving federal aid.

“The question is, would this become political football for the Trump administration?” said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science emeritus at San Jose State University. “I seriously doubt it. An area has suffered, and their problems are independent of any political wrangling. It’s hard to believe the Trump administration would use this as a way of punishing California.”

Meanwhile, the water district has hired well-known crisis communications consultant Sam Singer to handle public relations about the flood.

Singer is president of Sam Singer Associates, a San Francisco-based communications firm. A former journalist and political campaign manager, he is known across the Bay Area for being a go-to fixer for corporations, public agencies and others who run into public relations problems.

Singer’s firm represented the San Francisco Zoo when a tiger fatally mauled a man there in 2007. He represented Levi Strauss during the biggest round of layoffs and plant closings in company history. And he handled communications for the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association when the cargo ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge, causing the worst oil spill in San Francisco Bay in two decades.

Rick Callender, government relations director for the water district, said Monday that he hired Singer because the district is getting a large volume of requests for information from across the Bay Area, state and nation.

“We can’t keep up with the media requests that we are getting,” he said. “Literally, I don’t have enough hands.”

Callender said the district is hiring Singer with a $25,000 sole source purchase order. If he is needed beyond a few weeks, Callender said he would seek approval from the district’s board. The district’s budget for communications this year is $1.1 million and for government relations $2.5 million.

Singer charges $500 an hour for his services, and his staff’s hourly rate ranges from $135 for administrative assistants to $400 for senior consultants.

“Our role is to provide advice and counsel to the board and district staff to respond quickly to public and media inquiries,” Singer said Monday, “and to help provide clarity about the complexity of this flood and to try and figure out ways from it occurring again in the future.”

Callender said he made the arrangement after consulting with the district’s acting CEO Norma Camacho and Jim Fiedler, the district’s chief operating officer for water utility.

“Are we in a crisis? We had a situation where a community flooded,” said Callender. “Obviously you had a crisis. You want somebody who can pick up the phones and call people and also to take the interviews.”

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

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