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More Flood Victims Move to Sue California Local and State Agencies

Nearly seven months after a series of winter atmospheric rivers brought heavy rains caused the Tulare County city of Woodlake to flood, residents are taking steps to sue local and state agencies.

A flooded almond grove in Earlimart, Calif.
A flooded almond grove in Earlimart, Calif., photographed this March. Although groves have been intentionally flooded at times to replenish groundwater, the trees are among the most sensitive to waterlogging.
(Gina Ferazzi/TNS)
(TNS) - More Central San Joaquin Valley residents plan to sue local and state agencies who they say failed to prevent flooding that devastated their homes and community in March.

Nearly seven months after a series of winter atmospheric rivers brought heavy rains that overwhelmed water infrastructure and caused the Tulare County city of Woodlake to flood, residents are taking steps to sue local and state agencies over what they say was failure to ensure the proper operation of floodgates and storm drains.

About 100 Tulare County residents and business owners, primarily residing in Woodlake, have partnered with Los Angeles -based law firm, Kabateck LLP, to file claims – the first step before they can sue public entities under state law.

“This is yet another example of California’s failing water infrastructure,” said Shant Karnikian, counsel for the plaintiffs. The firm is also representing flood victims in Merced County, as well as Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

“It’s reached a tipping point where the water infrastructure keeps failing and in different but similar ways,” he said.

Gabriel Vasquez, one Woodlake resident and claimant pursuing litigation, told The Bee in July that he’d been staying at his daughter’s house nearby ever since the floods destroyed his home’s foundation in March.

He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to move back into his own home. At the time, Vasquez was still drying out his home with a dehumidifier, which, three months after the floods, was still collecting a gallon of water every five hours from the lingering moisture.

At the peak of summer, Vasquez was already thinking about the upcoming winter ahead.

“If it floods again,” he said in Spanish, “what am I going to do?”

The individuals filed claims earlier this month against the City of Woodlake, the County of Tulare, the State of California, and various local water and resource management agencies including Tulare County Flood Control District, Tulare County Resources Management Agency, Tulare County Local Agency Formation Commissions, Tulare Irrigation District, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District and Tulare County Resources Management Agency.

Claimants say these groups are responsible for the flooding they experienced because of their role in designing, permitting, monitoring, and ensuring the maintenance of local floodgates and storm drains. Their breach of responsibility, claimants say, led to the damage they experienced, including real and personal property damages, personal injuries, emotional distress damages, and relocation expenses, lost wages, loss of livestock and crops, cost of rebuilding, evacuation costs, diminished property value, destruction and loss of private property, increased living expenses and more.

The agencies have 45 days to respond before residents can pursue their individual lawsuits.

Woodlake’s City Administrator Ramon Lara confirmed receipt of the claims in a phone call with The Bee on Thursday. He said the whole state experienced floods this year and that the city continues to help residents file claims through insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

“From the city’s perspective we did everything we could during and after the floods,” he said.

Jennifer Fawkes, a spokesperson for the Tulare County Board of Supervisors said in an email that they had received the claims and are in the process of evaluating them. Monica Haasan, a spokesperson for the California Office of Public Affairs, said in an email that they are reviewing the claims, but do not comment on pending claims. Shane Smith, general manager the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District said the claims are being reviewed by their attorney and will be addressed in a response letter soon. Other agencies in question didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Residents allege ‘substandard maintenance’ of waterways, development

The crux of the claimant’s argument centers on the city of Woodlake’s role in approving a housing development on top of a nearby creek and ensuring the creek was properly rerouted.

According to the claimant’s filings, in 2019 the city of Woodlake annexed land and approved Hillside Estates to be built by Yanez Construction on top of Antelope Creek, which was historically known by the community to carry flood waters out of Woodlake. The new development elevated the land and rerouted Antelope Creek through a pipe that runs underneath Hillside Estates, the claims say.

Residents allege the agencies in question “intentionally, knowingly, carelessly and negligently performed substandard maintenance, operation, control, and repair of Antelope Creek, its floodgates and storm drains” which, as a result, caused the overflowing, flooding and ensuing property damage.

This isn’t the first time residents have raised allegations about the potential role of this nearby development.

In the days following the flooding, Woodlake residents immediately raised questions about whether the new development contributed to their flooding, and about what kind of environmental impact was conducted on the development, according to the L.A. Times.

“The contrast is really sad because you have this literally shiny new city that’s on a hill,” Karnikian said, “and then you have these other older residential properties that were flooded as a result of overflow of Antelope Creek.”

Karnikian said at this stage, it’s not exactly clear who is liable and that agencies tend to point the finger at each other after a disaster of this magnitude. He also said the law firm is considering filing a lawsuit against the home developers, but hasn’t made a decision yet.

In an email statement to The Bee, Yanez Construction said they were “shocked” by the damage done in Woodlake and other parts of California from the winter’s historic rainfall and flooding and “offers its sympathies to all that were damaged and displaced by such a historic weather event.”

“In connection with the Hillside Estates development,” the statement said, “Yanez Construction can confirm It obtained all necessary municipal approvals to develop Hillside Estates as per the City approved plans.”

Woodlake residents want accountability

Woodlake residents raised similar questions during a July 20 community meeting about who should be accountable for the flood damage they experienced.

During the meeting, hosted by The Bee and newsroom partners Vida en el Valle, Radio Bilingüe and KVPR, dozens of residents shed tears recounting the way they’ve lost their homes and belongings in the floods. Many of them shared how they’re still months away from completing repairs on their flood-damaged homes.

Others recounted the harrowing night in March they had to escape the floods. One mother had to carry one daughter on her back, drop her off in a safe place, and wade through the water to pull her other daughter out of a window and to safety.

They also raised a number of questions about the area’s water infrastructure and raised questions about the nearby development.

Joshua Diaz, a claimant whose home was heavily damaged in March’s floods, said in July that he’s raised questions about the potential role of the city and the local development in multiple city council meetings — but that city leaders don’t want to speak about it.

The law firm plans to file lawsuits on behalf of the flood victims before the end of the year.

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