On the first day of the flood, Jose Villalobos had to get his 5-year-old sister to school. It was a few minutes after 8am, and Coyote Creek had already jumped its bank—the riverine surge creeping into the playground across the street and down the block.
Though alarmed by the encroaching waters, Villalobos, 20, persisted to stay on schedule. After dropping his sister off at Shirakawa Elementary School, he returned home to the apartment he shared with his mom, girlfriend and year-old daughter to change for his 10am shift at Off the Wall, an indoor soccer complex. When he opened the front door for a second time that morning, the mud-thickened water looked deep enough to swim.
At a quarter-to-10, Villalobos slammed the door, clambered upstairs, stuffed whatever belongings he could find into a bag and raced back outside. Before loading up his car, he tried to warn a neighbor—an elderly man in the next unit—about the sudden deluge. Trying to outpace the panic and bring his girlfriend and toddler to dry land, Villalobos waded to his silver Volkswagen Passat, a car he scraped up $5,000 to buy after high school, and threw it into reverse. The water crept up past the hubcaps and seeped into the cab as he backed out. Villalobos made it no more than a few feet before the water hit the chassis and killed the engine. A neighbor offered to drive them out in a pickup, but the family would have to leave everything behind.
As the neighbor drove them toward Phelan Avenue, Villalobos saw firefighters and sheriff’s deputies arrive on boats to rescue more than 300 people left stranded. Had he remained just minutes longer, Villalobos and his family would have needed rescuing, too.
“I’m angry because the city didn’t say nothing,” he said. “We got no heads-up. Nothing.”
Nearly 40,000 people in the heart of the 10th largest city in the nation were caught off guard by flooding Feb. 21 and 22 along Coyote Creek. All told, 14,000 people were given mandatory orders to evacuate their homes in areas as economically diverse as Spartan Keyes, Rock Springs, Olinder Park, Roosevelt Park and Naglee Park as well as three mobile home communities along Old Oakland Road. Another 22,000 were strongly advised to relocate until authorities deemed the creek’s flood zone safe. San Jose’s immense homeless population—one of the nation’s largest, with at least 4,000 people, including 1,500 or so who live along local waterways—was especially vulnerable. Some were forced to cling to trees to avoid being swept away in the rushing water. Remarkably, there have been no reported fatalities.
The material toll, however, is staggering. Though inspectors red-tagged only three homes, nearly 500 others remain effectively uninhabitable, and countless more need serious repair. Financially speaking, the damage amounts to upward of $50 million for private property and $23 million for public, according to estimates submitted by the city in a petition for state and federal disaster aid. The outlay in unincorporated Santa Clara County comes to something on the order of $22 million.
The city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which supplies drinking water and flood control for 1.8 million people, have offered a variety of reasons for the flood: heavier storms than expected, spillover from Anderson Dam, potential obstructions that should have been cleared from Coyote Creek.
But the answer many residents are wondering: Why didn’t the public know sooner?
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has gone from suggesting Anderson Dam was poorly maintained to saying the city accepts full responsibility. In the immediate aftermath, however, he candidly blamed the district for giving bad information, leading to the city’s failure to notify the public.
“Those issues are very much linked,” Liccardo said. “I have been as clear as possible: there was a fundamental failure in relying on communication methods we had, everything from social media to the (county) alert system. I do not shy from the criticism that there should have been direct notification to those residents in all languages that they can understand. The question is, though: what would we have informed them about? That’s why these issues are so connected, because obviously we don't knock on doors citywide any time there is a big storm.”
It appears even more is at play than the district giving vague warnings or the city lapsing in its legal duty to alert the public. In the past week, San Jose Inside has interviewed more than a dozen high-level district and city sources in addition to reviewing emails that trace from years back through the days and hours preceding the floods.
Over the past two decades, district officials have made key decisions that let Coyote Creek flood protection to languish in favor of pet projects—one of which may have personally benefited the district’s interim chief operating officer, Melanie Richardson, who oversees Silicon Valley watersheds and flood control. Coincidentally, Richardson likely would have been one of the key people in charge of the district’s Emergency Operations Center during last week’s floods, except for one problem—she was on a ski retreat.
‘What a Mess’
Jose Villalobos waited a day for the waters to recede before heading back to Rock Springs, a largely working-class Vietnamese and Latino neighborhood in San Jose’s East Side. Some streets were still submerged in a foul lagoon of gasoline and raw sewage, others were covered in slippery muck, strewn with detritus—shredded plastic bags, a deflated Mylar Valentine’s Day balloon, a plastic doll, makeup bottles, sandals and sneakers and a waterlogged skunk carcass.
“See where that car is?” he asked, pointing toward a white SUV in the middle of the road. “They were trying to drive out, but the car died. They had to leave it right there.”
A block away from his apartment, Villalobos pulled two trash bags over each foot to protect his sneakers from the filth. He needed to retrieve some clothes, diapers and other necessities to bring back to his aunt’s house, where his family will stay for the time being.
The bright sun and blue skies seemed incongruent with the still-flooded streets, where several people were venturing back to recover whatever they could from their homes. First responders marked neon orange and hot pink X’s on the buildings and cars to indicate they were clear of evacuees. Dumpsters sat in the middle of the pitted street, having been swept out of place by the rush of water.
“What a mess,” Villalobos said, gingerly stepping his way through the slime.
When he opened the door to his unit, he reeled from the stench and pulled his shirt over his mouth and nose. He walked to the kitchen, leaving behind a trail of footprints on the muddy tile. Pretty much everything on the first floor would have to go, he said—the couches, the tables, the drum set he cherished, his daughter’s toys.
“This is just sad” he said, glancing around the living room, where the watermark rose about a half-foot off the floor. “It’s not normal. I don’t even know what to take right now.”
At least the top floor was spared, he remarked. In his room—the one he shared with his daughter and girlfriend—he unfurled a plastic Target store tote and began filling it up with baby clothes. He stuffed a few more trash bags full of belongings and made sure to grab his girlfriend’s plastic makeup bin.
“Maybe it’s not the most important thing right now,” he said, with a laugh. “But it’ll make her happy. That’s what matters, right?”
Outside the apartment, his landlord, Luis Rascon, crossed his arms and shook his head while surveying the damage. He wanted to start cleaning up, he said, but had to wait on the insurance company.
“It’s hard to sit here and do nothing,” said Rascon, clad in dark denim jeans and black rubber boots. “I live here, too. My dad lives here. My daughter lives here. I want to get to work, but I can’t yet.”
This wasn’t his first flood since moving to San Jose as a young father 27 years ago, he said, but it was definitely the worst. During the Coyote Creek flood of 1997, Rascon lived in the same slate-gray building as a tenant. Back then, the city told them days ahead of time about the impending flood, which gave his family enough time to move their valuables to the second floor.
“This time we didn’t know,” he said. “It came too fast. I didn’t know about it until I got a call at work.”
By then, his building was submerged beneath four feet of water. His elderly father, who was on the second floor, didn’t even notice until Rascon told him to look out the window.
“Nobody told us it was coming,” he said. “We had to tell each other.”
In 2000, with the 1997 floods still fresh in their memories, Santa Clara County voters passed the Clean, Safe Creeks Initiative, called Measure B on the ballot. The 15-year parcel tax included what was known as the Coyote Creek Flood Protection Project, which would earmark $32 million for flood mitigation along Coyote Creek. The district taxed residents along the waterway and spent $10.8 million on planning and preliminary designs. But then something happened—or, to be more accurate, nothing happened. The project just stopped.
District officials say efforts were made to secure federal funding, but these overtures were denied and the district had no choice but to look for “better projects.” Another water parcel tax dubbed Measure B passed in 2012, and other projects became the priority.
One of these projects is Upper Llagas in South County.
According to internal district emails, Melanie Richardson, then a deputy operating officer in charge of watersheds, was told that $8 million to 10 million in Coyote Creek funds got redirected to the Upper Llagas project near Morgan Hill. What makes this decision concerning is that RMC, a contractor overseeing the Upper Llagas project, was part-owned by Richardson’s husband, Tom Richardson. While $20 million sat untouched in the Coyote Creek fund, RMC—and by extension the Richardsons—stood to personally benefit from any rerouting of funds to Upper Llagas.
Starting in 2015, San Jose Inside began publishing a series of stories looking into conflicts of interest at the water district involving RMC, which has since been acquired by Woodard & Curran. Those reports found that Melanie Richardson, who was once the district’s former head of procurement, routinely came into contact with RMC business, despite claims from district executives that a “firewall” had been put in place. These reports prodded the water district’s elected board to successfully push for the resignation of district CEO Beau Goldie last year.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Melanie Richardson defended the firewall and denied being aware of any money moving away from Coyote Creek flood protection to other projects. “I am not aware of that,” she said. “I would have to look at those emails.” She promised to provide answers later in the day but failed to call back before presstime.
In the course of reporting on RMC and the district, San Jose Inside obtained emails that show Melanie Richardson was alerted to the Coyote Creek funding shifts by a subordinate from December 2014 to January 2015. RMC was initially selected to do the Coyote work, emails show, but the contract was canceled after the proposed Anderson Dam retrofit would have changed the scope of work. RMC also attempted to stick the district with project insurance costs, which is against the law.
Acting district CEO Norma Camacho defended Melanie Richardson, now the interim COO of watersheds, in a phone interview Tuesday, noting that her chief deputy may have known about money moving between RMC projects but didn’t have any control to transfer the funds herself.
“She wasn’t actually transferring the funds or the money,” Camacho said. “These were discussions that we had in trying to prioritize the budget.”
Afshin Rouhani, a district unit manager for mid-Coyote Creek, says the flood mitigation efforts voters have asked for and funded going on two decades will simply need to wait until more important projects are completed.
“It’s waiting for a good project to build,” Rouhani said.
However, unless residents have been attending water district board meetings the last few years, they might not have realized they were sliding down the priority totem pole while still paying into the fund.
“We haven't really had the community meeting,” Rouhani admitted.
When Sheila McGann-Tiedt heard about the flood coursing downstream last week, she had two hours to prepare. But precious time was lost driving to the water district’s sandbag sites off Phelan Avenue. When the flood closed in around that site, she headed north off Mabury Road. Before the flood of ’97, McGann-Tiedt said, the water district dropped off a bunch of sandbags at William Street Park, a block from her house. This time was different.
“We had no message from the city, no message from the water district about what was coming,” she said, standing on her driveway as a neighbor hosed mud off the sidewalk. “If it weren’t for all those posts on social media, we wouldn’t have known how bad it got.”
Their only official warning came from Councilman Raul Peralez, who went door to door in Naglee Park to tell people to flee their homes. As the waters spilled across the nearby park, volunteers—including Peralez and county Supervisor Cindy Chavez—began filling up sandbags.
“But honestly, it was too late by then,” McGann-Tiedt said.
Luckily, the water pinched off right before her house and flowed into her backyard, sparing the living quarters. Damage to the basement, however, will cost a fortune to fix.
“I feel bad for my neighbors,” McGann-Tiedt said, gesturing toward nearby houses, where volunteers were scrambling to tear up flooring and drywall in a race against the moisture-induced black mold. “They got the worst of it.”
One door down, Judy Georges fought back tears while assessing the damage. She and her husband bought their home off 16th and William streets a few years after the 1997 flood.
“We had no frame of reference for this,” she said. “We didn’t really know what to do—not that we had time to do much anyway.”
She barely had a moment to think.
“We just went through the motions,” Georges said. “We didn’t have time to feel a lot. First, there was the scramble to save whatever we could, then numbness, and then shakiness. I didn’t have the luxury of freaking out.”
Two days after the flood tore through her yard and drenched all her belongings on the first floor, Georges stood on the sidewalk chatting with neighbors.
“People have been wonderful,” said Georges, a humanities professor at San Jose State University. “I can’t tell you how many times people—some of them absolute strangers—have stopped by and said, ‘I am so heartsick for you.’”
Because of the topography of the upscale Naglee Park neighborhood, some homes were unaffected—looking over the toxic loch from high ground. Midday, after the flood flushed Georges out of house and home, she joined a group of fellow evacuees for lunch at a neighbor’s house on high ground, where they shared stories about their loss.
“Lunch was for freaking out,” Georges said. “By dinnertime, we were all cracking jokes and laughing. I guess we needed some sense of normalcy. Maybe we were too exhausted to panic.”
But the anxiety crept back as she stood outside her torn-up home.
“I’m shaking again,” Georges said. “I think the reality of this is really hitting now, the reality of how much we’ve lost.” At least no one died, she added. “That’s the perspective I need to keep. We survived. We all survived.”
District officials claim they sounded the alarm bells loud and clear to the city’s Emergency Operations Center just before 3am Tuesday. This should have left plenty of time for alerts and evacuations. At 2:47am, Jim McCann, a public information rep for the district, emailed Cheryl Wessling, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement, to tell her that water levels along Coyote Creek had reached 6,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) hours ahead of district projections. The magic number for flooding was pegged around 7,000, so one might assume this change presented a clear and present danger.
Wessling asked, “Is this a minor or major change in what we were expecting?”
“[R]elatively minor,” McCann wrote back, “in that it’s a few hours earlier than previously forecasted.”
To the layman, this type of language would hardly indicate an impending crisis. But this appears to be one of many instances of insouciance on both the city and district’s part.
Rachael Gibson, a district spokeswoman who worked closely with the mayor’s office days ahead of the flood, routinely offered overly optimistic assumptions. She noted there was “no major update” as of 6:40pm Monday and the district expected peak flows by Tuesday afternoon. Two emails sent by the water district's public affairs team at 8:31am and 8:39am hinted at “incidental flooding along parks and access roads.” As late as 9:41am Tuesday, Gibson told Alex Wilson, a deputy spokesman in the mayor’s office, that nothing had changed from the night before.
By then, Rock Springs was already underwater.
Rick Callender, the district’s communications director, dismissed McCann’s lack of urgency as a failure to read between the lines on the city’s part. He added that Gibson’s erroneous information was irrelevant because she was not in the water agency’s EOC and the mayor’s office had no formal role in evacuations or rescue operations. “If you're not in the EOC, then you really don’t know what was going on,” Callender said.
Vincent Gin, a deputy operating officer in charge of the district’s EOC from Monday evening until about 6:30am Tuesday, said the district was well aware of the “earlier shift” in water levels but didn’t expect flows to exceed 6,000 CFS. By the time Gin clocked off and left Jim Fiedler, COO of water utility, in charge of the district’s emergency command hub, he deemed the situation still manageable.
“We thought that it would be close because some of the channels could handle it,” Gin said. “I did not think it would be this widespread. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Perhaps even more distressing is that the district drafted an emergency plan in December 2002 that could have prevented much of the damage in Rock Springs. A report compiled by a former district employee recommended triggering an alarm system when the water flow in Coyote Creek reached 4,000 CFS, which would have occurred early evening Monday, Feb. 20. The plan shows a flowchart on how to deliver sandbags to Rock Springs within two hours of the alarm. It appears, however, that the district never bothered to finalize the plan, for reasons unknown.
Rudy Rodriguez, a Franklin-McKinley School District trustee, fought back emotion when he spoke at a La Raza Roundtable meeting Friday night, where he went to tell people about the devastation at Rock Springs. Families that already struggle to scrape by will have to start over.
“That was one of the hardest speeches I’ve ever made,” Rodriguez said. “I feel so much for the victims, for all our students.”
One of the emotions he felt was anger—anger toward the city for failing to tell families about the imminent danger. Councilman Tam Nguyen, whose district was hit the hardest, slammed the city for neglecting to disseminate information to Vietnamese residents. Rodriguez said he feels the same about the city’s outreach to Spanish-speaking households: that official outreach was vastly inadequate.
Despite joining more than a dozen conference calls with the county, water district, National Weather Service, Caltrans and PG&E before the first day of flooding, the city didn’t tell anyone to evacuate Rock Springs or Naglee Park. A full day before the Coyote Creek spilled its banks, the National Weather Service sent an urgent “flood watch” alert to phones throughout the South Bay. That same day, the county issued a flood warning to the cellphones of 282 residents of an unincorporated swath by highways 85 and 87 and one about a mudslide to 527 people west of Cupertino and Saratoga.
Days before the flood, virtually every agency in the South Bay knew that Anderson Dam was on the brink of spilling over. The legal onus was on San Jose to notify people within its well-documented floodways about the impending overflow. On the first day of the flood, around 7am, rescuers saved five homeless people stranded in the trees along Los Lagos Golf Course. Yet residents of Rock Springs and Naglee Park received no warning at all. At 9:40am—nearly three hours after the Los Lagos rescue, time that could have been spent sounding the alarm—Rock Springs was under four feet of water. By afternoon, so was Naglee Park. By the second day of the flood, the city finally asked the county to use its cellphone alert system as the dam-spilled torrent barreled northward.
In a memo from the county that summarizes the actions taken by each agency to notify the public, it appears the city relied heavily on the emergency response plans of other entities. Though the county bought and operates the phone warning system, called AlertSCC, each municipality within the region has been trained to use the system independently. For some reason, the city asked the county to help to send those alerts.
County Executive Jeff Smith said in a county memo to the Board of Supervisors that “each city is responsible for emergency management within its boundaries, and the county is responsible for this role in unincorporated areas.” According to Smith, agencies have to follow that protocol to qualify for state and federal disaster aid. The city apparently dropped the ball to such a degree that it may not even be eligible for relief funds.
“The city failed,” Rodriguez said. “They screwed up. They didn’t warn anybody. What they should have done, even within a few hours of the flooding, was start knocking on doors. They had time to do that. They had time to do it right.”
Had that happened, Rodriguez said, Villalobos would have had his car and some of his family’s prized belongings, like his drum set and his daughter’s toys. It’s unacceptable, Rodriguez noted, that some neighborhoods got multiple phone alerts to evacuate while others got none at all.
“The people in charge need to harness the way people communicate on the grass-roots level,” said Teresa Hernandez, a schoolteacher at George Mayne Elementary School in Alviso and activist who lobbed online criticism against the city under the hashtag #Spillgate. “A lot of the people impacted by the flood don’t have smartphones, cellphones, internet, many don’t speak English and use public transit. So these so-called official communications don’t really get the word out to these communities. What happened here is the very definition of socio-economic injustice.”
The Franklin-McKinley school district has a better emergency plan than the city’s, Rodriguez added. Once administrators heard about the deluge, they activated a calling tree, began knocking on doors, sent out emails in Spanish and Vietnamese and started fundraising online for the hundreds of students whose families were displaced. Over the weekend, the school held a donation drive that drew about 150 flood victims and a dozen volunteers.
“Listen, a lot of people don’t know where to turn for help,” said Rodriguez, seated amid donated cans of food, diapers, first-aid kits and second-hand clothing in a room at Shirakawa Elementary on Saturday. “Some of our families are undocumented, and there’s this fear that prevents them from turning to other agencies. But they trust their school. This is where they find help.”
Ana, an undocumented woman who declined to share her full name, said the school has become a lifeline. All together, her family lost four cars, she said. Their corporate property management company has offered nothing in the way of reassurance that they could move back, she added, and it’s unclear at this point what she’ll do for transportation or whether she’ll be able to keep her job as a nanny.
“It’s horrible, asking for help,” she said in Spanish, through a translator. “I feel stressed. I feel desperate. I’m not sure what comes next.”
Her sister chimed in: “I need a car. I need a house. I may need a new job.”
“Tell them they can count on the school,” Rodriguez said in English, instructing the translator to relay the message. Looking at Ana directly, he added: “We’re here for you.”
The #Spillgate blame game is just getting started. Mayor Liccardo has said he’ll take the high road, stressing that the city accepts total responsibility, although a fair number of surrogates are operating on background. The water district, for its part, has taken an aggressive stance that its responsibility extends only so far as the information it provides—even if that information turned out to be inaccurate or incomplete.
In advance of a protracted legal battle, the district has not only placed a hold on the destruction of all documents, but also paid a $25,000 retainer to bring on PR crisis manager Sam Singer. His previous clients include former Congressman Mike Honda, who was was embroiled in an ethics scandal; the San Francisco Zoo, after a tiger escaped and mauled three teens; and the Oakland Children’s Hospital in the Jahi McMath case, when the young girl was declared brain dead.
None of this solves the greater question of how to properly notify residents in the event of another Coyote Creek flood, which will inevitably happen in the coming years—and all the more frequently because of climate change.
Richard McMurtry, a civil engineer and board member for Friends of Coyote Creek, questioned the district’s contention that it released as much water as it could from Anderson Reservoir in the weeks leading up to last week’s floods. But perhaps even more important, he said, is the need to change the public’s expectations. Watershed protections are designed to withstand a 100-year flood, which has a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Last week’s storm didn’t even meet that threshold.
“What happens when we get a 200-year storm?” McMurtry asked. “The whole flood control mentality—you keep building flood mitigation projects and all the people downstream get flooded.”
The public is unlikely to relinquish their homes and make way for levees along Coyote Creek, similar to the concrete floodwalls that line the Los Angeles River. The alternative, McMurty said, is to have all new structures built on stilts, like the ones in Alviso or any number of boroughs that lie in clearly mapped, federally designated floodways.
Until then, it might be wise to stop calling these events once-in-a-generation floods and refer to what they truly represent: the new normal.