The Santa Clara Valley Water District took a combative tone Wednesday during a meeting to discuss how the nation’s 10th largest city got ravaged by a flood that caused $100 million in damage.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has accepted blame for failing to provide a timely to warning residents—14,000 of whom were ordered to evacuate their homes after water was already at their door and hundreds more who got no warning at all. The official response from the district, the South Bay’s lead flood control agency, however, has been less forthcoming.
Rather than acknowledging that its engineers provided inaccurate data about how much water Coyote Creek could handle before flooding, the district accused the city of misinterpreting or discounting that information. The district—which hired Sam Singer’s crisis management PR agency shortly after the flood—said that the city had plenty of warning but failed to order evacuations until long after Anderson Dam overflowed, bombarding the creek and flooding homes and businesses on Feb. 21 and 22.
“The district and the National Weather Service provided useful and valid information, data and forecasts leading up to the flood,” according to an 80-page presentation shared at the hearing. “Numerous indicators showed the potential for flooding on Coyote Creek.”
While the water district has an obligation to monitor conditions for flood risk, the city’s role is to warn the public about imminent threats. In a letter sent to the press ahead of the meeting, district board chair John Varela asked: “Why did the city not act on predictions, maps, data, forecasts and other information ... that flooding was imminent?”
Mayor Liccardo, who posed his own questions in a sharply worded letter to the district, said Wednesday that he has already accepted responsibility for the city’s botched response and wants to focus on how to prevent similar devastation in the future.
“I took responsibility early on in this effort, because I hoped that would create the space needed for folks to come to the table and problem solve without pointing fingers and casting blame,” Liccardo said. “It appears my efforts fell short.”
The city relies on the water district’s expertise, the mayor added. If the data is unreliable, the city might need to hire its own hydrologists.
“That shouldn’t happen,” Liccardo added.
Unless both agencies work together to fix their respective shortcomings, the mayor continued, then “we are absolutely doomed to repeat this debacle.” He implored the district to join the city’s recovery efforts.
“I have two simple goals,” he said. “[To] get families back on their feet and housed … and ensure that never again do our residents face this type of calamity.”
Tony Estremera, a water district board member f0r the East Side of San Jose, said he wants to see people get back in their homes, too.
“We share the same constituents,” he said. “These folks are not aliens to us. … Let’s resolve whatever these conflicts are and move on.”
Board director Linda LeZotte offered a rare criticism of her own agency for its defensive posture. The district took “no ownership” of the problem, she said.
“I think we need to take some responsibility for the information we provided,” she said. “If we don’t take ownership of that we’re not going to fix this.” Later, she added: “I hope we’re learning that we need to change, whether we’re saying it in public or not.”
Norma Camacho, the district’s interim chief executive, conceded that the district needs to provide data that is useful and put in context. The district will explore the idea of installing gauges that are visible to the public and easy for lay people to read, she said.
Board member Barbara Keegan agreed with that suggestion, but she also noted that the district and city’s failure to communicate should receive scrutiny.
“In some ways, I think the solution is more low-tech, perhaps,” Keegan said. “It’s the improved communications, it’s having triggers for certain activities to take place and having boots on the ground, whether it’s our boots or your boots.”
Board member Dick Santos said the long-term goal is to improve and add more flood protection infrastructure. As a resident of Alviso, he said, he was flooded out of his home on three occasions, including during a 100-year flood in 1983. Fortification built in the wake of those floods has prevented that from happening again, he said. But those projects are ongoing and have yet to encompass every flood-prone area.
“I look at Anderson Dam as the heart and I look at Coyote Creek as an artery and we need to repair it,” he said.
One issue that the city and district have yet to figure out is who is responsible for keeping some parts of the creeks clear of vegetation, which affects the flooding threshold. The water agency maintains that its responsible for dredging all engineered channels. But much of Coyote Creek, including the parts that flooded, are natural channels with sensitive habitat where vegetative growth and sediment buildup affect water flow.
The few dozen residents who showed up to the early afternoon meeting, held when many people were at work, had sharp words for both the city and the district. Several people expressed anger about the district holding the meeting at a time when flood victims couldn’t attend. Colin Heyne, who has been renting out a basement until he figures out how to repair his home, wrote in an email to the board that he and his neighbors had no idea about the hearing until the last minute.
“I hope you reach one conclusion at this meeting: start cutting checks,” said Heyne, a resident of the Naglee Park neighborhood. “Refund all the money you collected under the guise of flood control and creek maintenance. I count three line items dedicated to the water district on my property tax bill. Any other decision will confirm the common knowledge in this county—that you are a corrupt, incompetent, cowardly agency with no regard for the lives your mismanagement has affected.”
Some city officials were irked by the timing, which interrupted the city’s weekly Rules and Open Government Committee session and forced the mayor to arrive nearly an hour after the district started its first public meeting on the flood.
Jeffrey Hare said he tried calling the water district’s emergency operations center before the flood hit, but he got a pre-recorded message. He also slammed Assistant City Manager David Sykes, the city’s point man as the flooding began, for failing to issue evacuation orders in time.
“Now, Mr. Sykes,” he said, “I could interpret your charts apparently more accurately than your staff did.”
The city and district should focus on four things, Hare concluded. The two agencies should update flood-detection technology, improve communication, ensure that sandbags are delivered and “fix the damn dam.”
Robert Aguirre, an advocate for the homeless, called out water district and city officials for failing to address how their emergency response will account for all the people who live on the river banks. When the flood struck, many homeless people were left stranded.
“There was no mention of the houseless individuals living along the creek, the first people that were affected," he said.
According to the district's presentation (which is available online), the next steps are to come up with a joint emergency plan and prepare for the next storm season later this year. Local leaders will also lobby for state and federal funding to bolster permanent flood protections, such as flood walls and levees.
The district will hold more public hearings on the flood next month in the three communities most affected by the flood. Each event will include a resource and informational open house. The first of those meetings takes place at 6pm on April 6 at the Santa Clara County Service Building, 1555 Berger Drive in San Jose. The other hearings are set for April 12 at the Franklin McKinley School District office, 645 Wool Creek Road, and on April 17 at the Roosevelt Community Center, 901 E. Santa Clara St.