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After January storms, some California communities look for long-term flood solutions

People watch rain water flowing downstream at the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles this January.
Damian Dovarganes
People watch rain water flowing downstream at the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles this January.

In East Palo Alto, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, nearly four inches of rain fell on New Year's Eve, as a storm parked over the San Francisco Bay Area. Trees came down. The power went out. Murky brown water from San Francisquito Creek spilled into a neighborhood of mostly low-income apartments and single-family homes.

Antonio López, East Palo Alto's vice-mayor rushed to help a woman frantically trying to get into her car.

"It was heartbreaking trying to salvage all of her possessions because the water came up all the way to the window," López said as he walked the still muddy streets following the storm.

California communities including East Palo Alto continue to clean up from the aftermath of a series of atmospheric rivers in January — monster storms that form over the ocean and flow inland. The storms caused billions of dollars in damages and climate scientists predict extreme weather events will only worsen as the climate warms. That's left residents in East Palo Alto to pursue long-term solutions to aging infrastructure that will help minimize the risks of flooding in the future.

"The silver lining is it has certainly been a wake-up call," López said after East Palo Alto and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews built a sandbag wall to keep rising creek levels in check. "A few pounds of sand separates us from flooded parking garages in Silicon Valley. I don't feel so proud about that. It's insufficient."

Early estimates from the city and community groups put flood damages upwards of $100,000. This includes totaled cars, tools and other personal belongings stored in trunks and in low-lying garages.

López said he is applying for a grant from local foundations to help cover damages, but it's a slow process.

The economic losses from flooding statewide are estimated between $5 and 7 billion, according to the global catastrophe risk modeling company Moody's RMS.

Members of the San José Conservation Corps pile sandbags along the San Francisquito Creek in East Palo Alto on Jan. 4, 2023. The creek spilled over its bank and into a nearby community during the storm on New Years Eve.
Beth LaBerge / KQED
Members of the San José Conservation Corps pile sandbags along the San Francisquito Creek in East Palo Alto on Jan. 4, 2023. The creek spilled over its bank and into a nearby community during the storm on New Years Eve.

Federal disaster assistance is available for nine California counties, including San Mateo where East Palo Alto is. The aid includes grants, temporary housing, transportation, childcare and moving expenses. The deadline to apply for aid is March 16.

"This will be of great help to individuals and business owners who suffered losses during the severe storms that dumped 13 inches of rain on the county in December and January," said U.S. Rep. Kevin Mullin, a Democrat who represents San Mateo, in apress release.

In East Palo Alto, Marisela Ramos, president of the East Palo Alto West Side Neighborhood Committee, organizes residents who need help paying for damages including cars swamped by flood waters.

"The cars were their means of transportation to go to work and to generate money to pay their rent for their children's food," she said speaking in Spanish. "They lost basically everything because, without transportation, it is very hard to make a living."

Ramos said most of the residents did not have flood insurance. She questions whether the flooding amounts to negligence by the city, landlords, or the authorities that manage the creek.

"Why didn't they act before to prevent this," Ramos questioned. "This happened before. So, why didn't they put protection on the creek's banks before the storm?"

East Palo Alto has flooded many times over the years. A massive flood in 1998 swamped 1,700 properties, causing more than $28 million in damages.

Climate change means a wetter future

According to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, atmospheric rivers will only get more intense, and precipitation is becoming more concentrated at the center of these storms. The most water-logged winter storms could become around 30% wetter by the mid-century.

"The precipitation will be more intense, which is important because it can cause flash floods," said Ruby Leung, study co-author and climate scientist at the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Lab in Richland, Washington.

Atmospheric rivers, she said, will challenge the capacity of larger streams and rivers, especially when infrastructure like levees, freeways or bridges surround them. Waterways that used to sprawl into large marshy areas are often now contained to managed stretches.

"The information we used before to design infrastructure may not be relevant anymore, and we need to incorporate the knowledge that we now have about how the future may be changing," Leung said.

A renewed call to action for East Palo Alto

East Palo Alto council member Ruben Abrica lived through the 1998 storm.

He said bolstering flood protections for this community of majority people of color is worth investing in.

"Climate change is going to affect everyone, but the most vulnerable communities are the ones that will suffer the most unless we join together," said Abrica.

Margaret Bruce, executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, sees reducing the flood risk along San Frascisquito Creek as a priority.

"We know we can't completely do away with the risk of flooding," said Bruce. "We can no longer plan our future looking in the rearview mirror. But looking forward is very difficult to foresee."

The authority leads a multi-part creek restoration effort, andfinished the first stretch in 2019. The lower part of the creek channel was widened and higher levees built to withstand up to 10 feet of rising sea levels and flood water.

The second segment,Highway 101 to the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, recently flooded along the borders of East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The plan is to widen the channel and replace the bridge with a new one allowing more water to pass under it. This section is expected to be completed between 2024 and 2026.

The project hinges on getting funding to finish it. Bruce said it would cost at least $50 million for the second stretch of creek. State or federal infrastructure dollars could help; otherwise, authority partners — East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, San Mateo County and Santa Clara Valley Water District — will have to pay to complete this next phase.

A final part of the plan would involve creating small holding reservoirs along the creek's upper reaches to store water temporarily until extreme precipitation subsides.

"We don't know yet if it's going to be completely feasible," Bruce said. "It may be so disruptive, costly, or technically difficult that we'll want to think twice about it. But we are considering it."

Stanford University is designinga long-term project to reestablish creeks flowing from Searsville Lake and increase storage capacity by clearing out sediment behind the dam that makes the lake.

'Everybody's paying attention'

The levee reconstruction and creek restoration along the lower stretch of the waterway significantly reduced the damage that could have happened during the January onslaught of atmospheric rivers that hit California.

Still, the flood's damage puts a spotlight on finding money to address infrastructure, said East Palo Alto Councilmember Abrica. "You can't just say it's your problem down there. Because then you condemn the poor communities to be flooded."

East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Menlo Park are taking an active role in the creek restoration. The recent storms flooded parts of Menlo Park, said Nikki Nagaya, the city's deputy manager.

"We saw the creek levels spike throughout the lower section in Menlo Park, and we saw some overtopping in that area as well," she said.

While the recent storms are a precursor of what's to come from human-caused climate change Nagaya said she isn't sure the project can be sped up.

"I think it will hopefully be a renewed call to action," she said. "Everybody's paying attention and wanting to see the work proceed as quickly as possible."

KQED's Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí and Anna Marie Yanny contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2023 KQED

Ezra David Romero/KQED