The cleanup crews have vanished, so have the debris piles. If it wasn’t for the two dozen mobile storage containers on the streets and in people’s driveways, one could forget what happened here in late February: one of the worst flood disasters in San Jose’s history.
The homes in the William Street neighborhood, just a few blocks east of San Jose State University, appear to be back in pre-flood conditions.
Unfortunately, appearances can be deceptive.
“From the outside, most of the houses look fine. But if you go inside – the majority of them – they are just like mine. They’re all gutted,” said Cuate Romero, a William neighborhood resident.
The flood affected over 760 households across three main flood zones: Rock Springs, William and three mobile home parks along Old Oakland Road.
Approximately 218 of these families – 638 individuals – are under case management of the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, according to Lindsey Caldwell, the nonprofit’s director of disaster recovery services.
A third of them are still in temporary housing, which includes hotel rooms, living with friends and family members or staying in one of the temporary apartments the organization provided through master leases with apartment complexes across San Jose, Caldwell said.
Recovery and repair
Minor damages at the mobile home parks were taken care of quickly, Paul Pereira, the San Jose Mayor’s Office deputy director for neighborhood quality of life and public safety, said during an interview in March.
But the homes of many Rock Springs residents, mostly low-income Vietnamese families, and dozens of families in the William neighborhood suffered more significant damage.
“I don’t think there is one neighbor here that’s done fixing their house,” Romero said.
He and his now retired parents moved to the William neighborhood when they bought the house in 1981.
After the flood, the family lived in a hotel paid for by the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. When scavengers began to lurk around the area and steal what the flood hadn’t destroyed, Romero and his brother decided to return home.
By June, they were still sleeping on two inflatable beds in a nearly empty house.
“Sometimes I’m living out of my car, dressing out of my car. For about two to three weeks I have been showering at work because there is no running water here. Occasionally, we have to go use the restroom at McDonald’s because the water is not flushing. All that normal stuff has changed,” Romero said during an interview in June.
What went wrong
The rainfall season between late 2016 and early 2017 provided a historic amount of rain.
During February 2017, the weather sensors at Mineta San Jose International Airport registered nearly 17 times the amount of precipitation of February 2016, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
“Any sort of system can be overwhelmed given enough rain,” said Afshin Rouhani, manager of the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s water resources policy and planning unit.
The second-highest rainfall total ever in the Coyote Creek system, built in 1936, filled up the Coyote and Anderson reservoirs, Rouhani added, which spilled and “created the flood situation we experienced.”
“What caused the flooding was the historic rainfall. However, how we responded to it – how we and the city collectively responded to it – probably could have been done better,” said Melanie Richardson, the Water District’s interim chief operating officer of watersheds.
She said she believes all the information needed for the city to issue an evacuation notice was available: “It was a matter of how this information was interpreted and how it was used, and when the decision was made to call for an evacuation.”
Another William neighborhood resident, 52-year-old Garry Johnson, said he came to get his two dogs, medications and passports to flee his house around 5 p.m. on Feb. 21. He said he, his husband and a friend later returned to try and prevent further damage.
“We got as many things up off the floor as we could, turned off the lights and left the house at about 8 or 8:30 p.m. or so. Still no evacuation order had been issued.”
The city released an evacuation advisory for the entire area along Coyote Creek, north of Highway 280 and south of Highway 237 at 9:30 p.m.
At 10:20 p.m., city officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for the area north of East William and south of Santa Clara streets.
Mayor Sam Liccardo tweeted a map and evacuation order for “nearly all residents east of Coyote Creek but west of 101 at 10:42 p.m.
“We recognize that there was a mistake made in relying too much on data that we thought was vetted,” said Raymond Riordan, director of San Jose’s office of emergency services.
Both the city and the water district have an emergency operations center, Riordan added, and in the hours leading up to the flood as well as during the flood, the two centers worked independently rather than collectively.
“There was definitely a communication issue,” said Riordan, who will present an after action report to city council on Aug. 8, evaluating the performance of city employees and emergency services during the flood and its aftermath.
How to prevent another crisis
After the city and Water District spent lots of time arguing who is to blame for the misunderstandings and misinterpretation of certain data, they have come together to establish a collaborative approach preparing them for future events.
The goal is to create a joint emergency action plan that clarifies the roles of both parties in potential disaster situations.
“What we are looking at are the responsibilities of both entities, where we have people with similar knowledge and capabilities. We will make sure they work together as subject matter experts, as a team, instead of two separate agencies,” Riordan said.
Rouhani described the lack of communication as the main issue in this series of events: “What do you do with the information you have? It was there. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to the correct actions. Our coordination needs to be improved.”
Riordan said the city is interested in a joint relationship with the Water District to avoid “keep making the same mistakes.”
“One of the positive consequences of a terrible event like this is that it provides an opportunity for the city to learn and work together – not minimizing the devastation and suffering that goes along with it,” said Kip Harkness, San Jose’s deputy city manager.
“Our lesson as a city is that we need to invest in the preparation and deliberate practice around the disasters, which are going to come and for which we will be primarily responsible,” he added.
An expensive lesson for residents
Harkness said the total costs for the city are approximately $25 million, including payments for cleanup, sheltering and temporary housing, as well as repairs of public properties such as parks, buildings, bridges and streets.
San Jose hopes to get reimbursed for most of its expenditures through federal and state funds and grants.
The damages of private properties are estimated at around $75 million.
Lower-income households were able to get no- or low-interest loans from the City of San Jose and the Small Business Administration, if they did not exceed a certain income restriction.
Many residents exceeding the restriction, like Garry Johnson and his husband, have to pay for most of the restoration of their damaged homes themselves.
Johnson said although he had flood insurance – as one of few residents in the neighborhood – his out-of-pocket expenses will range between $60,000 and $100,000 for restoring the house to pre-flood conditions.
The flood insurance did not cover all the damages and the check is not released until after the repairs are completed, creating a significant financial burden for the homeowner.
During the cleanup, Johnson learned not to be too attached to anything, he said.
“The flood taught me a life lesson in letting go.”
Cuate Romero and his family, too, are looking at costs upwards of $100,000.
Romero said he was planning to buy his own house, but now has to take care of his parents and their house instead.
“We need our house back, so we’re going to start rebuilding slowly.”
Additionally, he is planning to purchase flood insurance, which is an expense “that wasn’t expected. And now you have another bill to pay,” Romero said.
“Five years from now, hopefully we’ll forget about it, talk about it and laugh about it, all the stuff that we’ve done, things that we went through.”
He and his parents recently moved into a temporary housing unit for a few months until all the repairs are done.
“Our house is starting to look good again,” Romero said.