SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – The city of San Jose said over-reliance on faulty information was responsible for its failure to warn residents of an impending flood that led to the evacuation of about 150,000 people and caused widespread property damage in three different areas of its downtown corridor.
Hundreds of residents attended a special meeting of the San Jose City Council, where officials attempted to explain their tardy response to rising waters to a multitude of angry citizens, many of whom remain without housing.
“I have a lot of anger toward city officials and the water district,” one man said during the public hearing at Council Chambers on Thursday. “I didn’t listen to the warnings of my neighbors partly because the lack of official warnings.”
Many of the residents described how they heard no warnings until firefighters knocked on their doors with boats urging an emergency evacuation. The late warnings meant several property owners and renters were unable to protect their possessions.
“I am distressed that this is how you would treat our neighborhood,” said Mary Hegland, a professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University who lives in the Rock Springs neighborhood. “Sure, there are some middle class, but most of us are on the margin, poor, Hispanic, immigrants, and the city treated us like used toilet paper.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo has repeatedly acknowledged the city’s response was unacceptably tardy and while some officials accepted responsibility, there was also a fair share of blame cast on the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
City officials said the water district supplied them with inaccurate information that led to the poor response when Coyote Creek overflowed its banks at three distinct points throughout the city – at Rock Springs, at Williams Street Park and at the Oakland Road Mobile Home Park.
For example, the water district said the channel capacity at Rock Springs was 7,500 cubic feet per second, when the city believes it flooded at 4,500 cfs. Similarly, the city was informed the channel capacity at Williams Street Park was 11,500 cfs, but the overbank occurred at 5,500 cfs.
The incorrect information also caused the city to underestimate the time needed for the large amounts of water to travel from the Anderson Reservoir to the downtown corridor. The water district initially gave indications the crest of the flood wouldn’t arrive until 8 p.m. on February 18, but it actually arrived early that morning, with waters cresting around 5 a.m., when many of the residents were still asleep.
“The data provided by the Santa Clara Water Valley District was fundamentally flawed,” San Jose Assistant City Manager David Sykes said during the presentation.
City officials conceded they were “overly reliant” on the information provided by the water district and have formulated a three-tiered flood response that includes a flood advisory, warning and then evacuation protocol.
However, it remains clear the city feels they were fed bad data by the water district, which in turn put the residents at risk.
Water district officials have been muted in the wake of the flood and the subsequent criticism by city officials, issuing a statement on Thursday expressing condolences to “those impacted by the recent flooding.”
“We want the entire community – and everyone impacted – to know that we will do everything in our power to work with government at the federal and state levels, as well as the San Jose City Council, to determine what improvements can be made to reduce the risk of the type of flooding experienced by our community and residents,” the water district said in a statement.
But city officials are saying these sentiments are insufficient, and criticized the water district for sending “a single Government Affairs representative who could not answer the City Council’s even most basic questions of the water district” to Thursday’s meeting.
City officials have since to escalated their attacks on the water district.
San Jose Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco issued a statement Friday saying the district’s lack of high-level executives in attendance at the meeting was a sign of “disrespect” and represented a “lack of compassion.”
The water district did not return a call requesting comment.
No one was killed or injured during the flood, but 40,000 residents were temporarily displaced and thousands still remain without shelter.
One resident in attendance at the meeting talked about how he had to wade through sewage-filled water and has since developed a skin condition. Other residents in attendance expressed concern about the presence of mold in many of the afflicted houses and apartments.
The city initially estimated the cost of the flood damage at $73 million. Officials from the California Office of Emergency Services and FEMA have toured the flood-damaged areas and begun to make tallies relating to the cost of cleanup.
Many landlords, homeowners and tenants, several of whom did not have flood insurance, remain worried about when and if they will be able to repair their houses and apartments and get back to the course of normal life.