The Great San Jose Flood of 2017 came like a splash of cold water to the red faces of two sleepwalking local bureaucracies. The wake-up call arrived in the center of the world’s technology economy, in one of America’s 10 biggest cities, one that seemingly hasn’t been able learn from its own history, despite decades of reports and studies and public meetings undertaken to prevent exactly what happened from happening.
This was the fourth urban flood within San Jose’s city limits in the past 35 years. In 1983, the north San Jose community of Alviso was soaked with eight feet of water from the Coyote Creek, then contaminated by an asbestos levee built to prevent the water’s return. On March 10, 1995, the Guadalupe River flooded the Highway 87 Santa Clara Street underpass, creating a lake from the arena’s parking lots to the De Anza Hotel and submerging Henry’s Hi Life under four feet of water. The city’s tab: around $2.5 million in damages.
Less than two years later, the Coyote Creek overflowed again, destroying a handful of homes along the creek in a historic neighborhood east of downtown. After Arroyo Way resident Jeffrey Hare saw water fill his neighbor’s living quarters, the real estate attorney developed a simple rule of thumb: “When Anderson Dam fills and groundwater saturates, we’re going to flood in Naglee Park.”
Hare says he can pinpoint when it will flood by tracking the readings from the depth gauges upstream. “Naglee Park is 12 hours from Anderson Dam’s Madrone gauge, and six hours downstream from Hellyer. I started sounding the alarm Sunday morning when I noticed the creek going up two feet.”
He got a water district hydrologist on the phone and confirmed the readings, along with the flow rate of the water exiting the dam’s spillway. He checked a pole that had been placed in a neighbor’s creekside backyard after the 1997 flood. A graffiti marking on the San Antonio Street Bridge disappeared the creek’s surface. “It rose three feet with no rain,” he said.
Hare began furiously posting to Twitter and the neighborhood association’s online group list. He says he made calls on Sunday to urge the district to bring sandbags to William Park, to no avail. He called television stations and stopped by the local fire station. “They said they’d tell the captain,” he said.
He continued to sound alarms on Monday, but many offices were closed for the President’s Day holiday. He started telling his neighbors to start packing. Not everyone got the memo. “We went to bed Monday night and we knew there was going to be a problem.”
Around 9:30am Tuesday morning, 911 calls started coming in from Rock Springs reporting that the neighborhood was under three to four feet of water.
While first responders rushed to Rock Springs, affluent Naglee and the less posh numbered streets east of the Coyote Creek were next.
Around noon notices started being posted to the neighborhood group list. “Is anybody with a truck able to get more sandbags for the Heckmans?” asked one. “The Heckman house is in dire need of more sandbags,” posted another. “Can you ask the [neighborhood association] or parents list for people to deliver sandbags?”
Neighbors rushed to assist, but the district hadn’t brought sandbags to William Street Park as it did in 1997. “They were bringing three, four, 10 at a time,” Hare said. “You need about 2000 to build a berm.”
The Senter Road sandbag distribution point became inaccessible due to flooded roads. The Mabury Road location three miles away had lines and shortages, and residents had to fill the bags themselves.
Eric Heckman eventually evacuated his home in a borrowed canoe as the bottom level of his house flooded. He estimates the uninsured portion of the damages could reach $50,000. He finally heard from the city three days later, “when they yellow tagged my home.”
Sometime around 3:30pm a tree came down and knocked power out to hundreds of homes. Forty-five minutes later, Mayor Sam Liccardo arrived at William Street Park. He stood at the park’s edge and glared at the water filling up the grassy expanse. Residents crowded around and Liccardo chatted and shook a few hands but had no information to share.
He jumped back in his car and left, and water continued to spill over the curb and onto the street.
Aside from a vague post “advising residents in neighborhoods in low-lying areas near the creek to evacuate their homes,” there was no official information from the city. Without power or internet and phones starting to lose their charges, residents had to guess as to how high the water would go, and whether to evacuate. Anecdotal information started to make the rounds. The water is rising at a foot an hour, one said. Heckman heard the same reports I did. “It’s going to crest at 9. It’s going to crest at 12. It’s going to crest at 2.”
Exhausted rats frantically searched for dry land, exhausted from long swims. Ducks frolicked in newly created wetlands. San Jose State students who had parked along the park’s edge returned to cars that were flooded to their headlights. The sun went down. Helicopters, sirens and the crash of falling trees could be heard throughout the evening.
Across the creek, on the east side, the streets filled up with toxic water as residents stood in ankle deep puddles in their socks and sneakers. Families huddled in warehouse entrances and on apartment steps as streets turned into rivers. Police cars sat in the middle of flooded intersections, the reflections of their flashing, colored lights rippling across the mirrored surfaces of the newly minted lakes.
Sometime after 1am the power came back on. By that time I’d bought life jackets and a boat and waded through knee-high water in newly purchased fly fishing boots with gas for a generator and pizza for the tots. I was lucky. Not once did a city official contact residents on my flooded street. Other residents reported getting a knock on the door at 1:30am.
The next morning, the mayor apologized for the notification failures, though his communications director, David Vossbrink noted, “We posted to Nextdoor.com, to social media.” The shambolic tangle of mixed messages and misinformation, as well as the city’s reliance on multiple electronic systems during emergencies, illustrates a core problem. Nextdoor, for example, has only has 25 percent penetration in well-educated Naglee and no doubt much less in the poor neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the flooding.
Nonprofit executive Rick Holden looked at the floating cushions and chairs and toppled lacquered tansu cabinet in his once Sunset magazine picture-perfect Japanese garden. More than a foot of brown water still remained in his downstairs rooms, and he wondered what happened to his foot-and-a-half long prize koi.
It took six dumptrucks and a pumping crew to clean up the mess, and he found two of the carp flopping around. They later died. Holden realized these were First World problems, having spent the night with his wife at the Fairmont hotel. He considered himself lucky and said he was most concerned about the neighbors on the other side of the creek, who had lost all of their possessions and spent their night on cots at the evacuation center.
More than seven years ago, in 2009, the Santa Clara Valley Water District published slick brochures and held neighborhood meetings to evangelize a plan to reduce the risk of Coyote Creek flooding in downtown and East Side neighborhoods. The initiative, which would have completed improvements in 2016, mysteriously vanished and follow-up meetings were never held.
Water district spokesperson Rachael Gibson said on Wednesday that Anderson Dam, which overflowed and dumped its excess water into the Coyote Creek, performed as designed. “It’s the rain,” she said. “I want to be very clear about that.”
The reliance on big capital expenditures and flawed digital systems are no substitute for common sense and basic tools: having sandbags in the right places, distributing flyers with neighborhood-specific information, keeping dinghies, generators and analog walkie-talkies on hand and going door-to-door.
The one positive outcome of the Flood of 2017 was the outpouring of goodness and generosity that it generated. Neighbors posted offers of rooms to strangers in online forums. More than half a million dollars in funds were contributed to relief coffers. The mayor and two councilmembers led hundreds of volunteers in neighborhood cleanups.
The truth is that San Jose dodged a much bigger disaster and things could have been much, much worse. There’s really no excuse for that in a region as enlightened and wealthy as Silicon Valley. Clearly there’s a better way for government agencies to behave than mis-spending money, running around with their heads cut off and repeatedly flooding the city’s poorest neighborhoods.