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California Storm: What to Do When People Won’t Evacuate?

“We’re not going to force them. We’re not going to drag them out of their houses,” said Sgt. Juan Valencia, public information officer for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. “But if there’s an order, we recommend people leave.”

A person sitting on a cot on a gym surrounded by other empty cots with the floor covered in blue tarps.
Coyote Creek unhoused resident Jerusha Kneib, 41, sits on a cot for the night as she starts to watch a show on her phone after arriving at the Red Cross evacuation shelter at Seven Trees Community Center in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
(Josie Lepe for Bay Area News Group)
(TNS) - As the Bay Area weathers a series of punishing storms, local officials are grappling with a familiar dilemma during both floods and fires: what to do when people refuse to flee for their own safety.

From San Jose, where homeless residents have been ordered to move from rapidly rising creeks and rivers, to Sonoma County, where the Russian River is poised to overflow this weekend, public safety crews are trying to straddle the line between keeping residents safe and respecting their right to make their own decisions. It’s a delicate dance and one that can quickly turn scary.

Firefighters rescued a man from the raging Los Gatos Creek in San Jose on Wednesday night after flooding near South Bascom Avenue and the Southwest Expressway forced him to climb a tree. Many others are ignoring evacuation orders, and shelters remain largely empty, despite another round of storms coming this weekend.

Despite the risk, moving people out of harm’s way by force is a last resort. “People are entitled to their own choices, and we respect their individual rights and civil liberties,” Carolina Camarena, spokesperson for the city manager’s office, said in an email.

Farther north, Sonoma County is expecting similar issues as the Russian River is forecasted to overflow its banks starting Sunday evening. More than 13,000 residents in low-lying areas between Healdsburg and Jenner were under an evacuation warning Thursday, which may move to a mandatory order instructing people to leave immediately as flooding becomes imminent. But as happens when fast-moving forest fires threaten those and other communities, there are sure to be people who won’t leave.

“We’re not going to force them. We’re not going to drag them out of their houses,” said Sgt. Juan Valencia, public information officer for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. “But if there’s an order, we do recommend people leave, because if they stay, what’s going to happen is they’re going to end up becoming a rescue.”

Deputies and other first responders who go door to door telling residents to evacuate can’t waste time getting into a “tussle” with anyone who disregards the order, Valencia said. Instead, they record the location of the house and the number of people refusing to leave — in case it becomes the scene of a crisis later.

One upside, Valencia said, is that unlike an unpredictable forest fire that might force people to flee at a moment’s notice, floods usually offer more time to prepare.

While the threat along the Russian River has diminished, minor to moderate flooding appears to be in store, and the county remains concerned, said Sonoma County spokesperson Paul Gullixson.

And even though rain totals Wednesday night were lower than anticipated, it doesn’t mean the region can let its guard down, said Dial Hoang, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service of the Bay Area. Additional storm systems are expected to hit the region Friday night and Monday.

“Because all these storms are coming in one storm after another, we haven’t had time for the soil to really dry out,” Hoang said. “Even a lower amount of precipitation could cause landslides in hilly areas, a lot of flooding for rivers, creeks and streams. And with any winds, it is generally easier for trees and other debris to fall on roadways, homes or waterways.”

As a result, those who did evacuate from beside San Jose’s creeks and rivers are being asked not to return to their campsites for the time being, and outreach teams are continuing to warn people of the dangers. But some people declined to leave, either because they were afraid to abandon their belongings, didn’t feel comfortable in a shelter or thought the dangers were overblown.

One 50-year-old man, living in a make-shift shack of concrete and wooden pallets just 10 feet from the edge of Coyote Creek, dismissed the evacuation order Wednesday. “They’re making a big deal out of nothing,” the man said, declining to give his name.

If it gets bad enough, he’d go to a friend’s house but not an emergency shelter, he said — he chafes under the rules of such a structured environment.

And he’s not the only one. Though the Red Cross opened a new emergency shelter with 150 beds at Seven Trees Community Center in San Jose, only 19 people showed up Wednesday night. In San Francisco, just over half of the 250 available shelter beds were occupied.

In Oakland, outreach workers were going to encampments and trying to convince people to take the more than 50 empty beds at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter in West Oakland, but only one person agreed, said Executive Director Blase Bova.

Pastor Ralph Olmos, president and CEO of San Jose nonprofit Lighthouse Food Rescue and Distribution, didn’t get many takers when he was driving around trying to shuttle people from riverbanks to an emergency shelter Wednesday afternoon. But as the rain picked up, he started getting calls. By that point, it was too late — his shuttle bus couldn’t make it over the sodden mud paths.

“I think last night was kind of a big wakeup call for everybody,” he said on Thursday. “I think they’re starting to realize they can’t be by the water. The water was rising too fast.”

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