Federal, local officials gear up for coming El Nino | News | Palo Alto Online |


Federal, local officials gear up for coming El Nino

FEMA releases disaster plan for California and the West

Citing a worrying El Nino storm pattern this winter that could rival 1997-98's flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Wednesday released a 66-page Severe El Nino Disaster Response plan in the event of a disaster in California and other western states.

The "Executive Decision Support Guide: Region IX El Nino Event" report was developed to guide planning and responses by federal teams, which would spring into place after local and state resources are depleted. While much of the report is written for emergency-response management, the document does highlight the agency's predictions for California, Nevada and Arizona.

"There is substantial risk in Northern California due to potential levee failures. These risks are derived from the two strongest El Nino winters, 1997-98 and 1982-83," the report noted.

The worry about levees is notable for Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The levee at San Francisquito Creek in East Palo Alto was damaged during a lesser El Nino event in December 2012. That storm caused the volatile creek to overflow its banks in spots along Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto as well as downstream east of U.S. Highway 101, flooding the Gardens neighborhood.

The swollen creek also caused storm drains to back up onto Palo Alto streets, and that was in a relatively dry El Nino year, officials noted. The National Weather Service predicts this winter will be wet, in line with 1997-98, the strongest El Nino on record.

Coupled with high-tide events that will take place during December and January, local officials are concerned. And soils hardened by the drought could create significant runoff in valley and urban areas.

"From a meteorological standpoint, this is the greater concern for flooding this upcoming season," FEMA noted.

Locally, officials have the added burden of potentially managing a flood during the Super Bowl in February, which will bring thousands of out-of-towners to the Midpeninsula. It is also when one of the highest tides of the winter will occur, Kenneth Dueker, Palo Alto's director of the Office of Emergency Services, said.

Officials are also bracing for the holidays, when the highest tides will occur Dec. 20-27, according to the California Coastal Commission. Combined with wind and heavy rainfall, sea levels could rise up to one foot in many areas, putting multiple medical facilities, schools, power plants, airports, fire stations and hazardous waste sites and wastewater-treatment plants at risk, along with nearly 189,000 people statewide, according to FEMA.

California remains the most vulnerable to weather-related disaster declarations out of 10 localities in the FEMA Region IX, which includes Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and other areas. The state accounted for 190 events out of 407 or 47 percent for the region between 1953 and 2012, according to FEMA.

Flooding caused 52 percent of the disasters in California among all weather-related events. In El Nino years, 53 percent of disasters were due to flooding. But that number can be deceiving, according to FEMA. Golden Gate Weather Service data shows that there is little correlation between the strength of El Nino and storm damage. In neutral years, flooding caused 55 percent of disasters. But the 1997-98 El Nino increased rainfall 320 percent statewide on average in February alone. The rains were persistent, heavy and often accompanied by high winds. Back-to-back storms left little time for recovery, causing significant mudslides and erosion, according to the report.

The result was an estimated $883 million in damage statewide, with 17 storm-related deaths. Forty counties were declared federal disaster areas, according to the report.

This year, FEMA is using the 1982-83 El Nino year as its planning model. That season resulted in $1.2 billion in economic losses, 36 dead and 481 injured. Lessons learned from the catastrophe helped to reduce damages in 1997-98, largely due to timed releases of water from reservoirs, according to FEMA.

The agency has developed a three-phase, five-stage response once there is an elevated threat from the storms, to cover everything from alternative transportation to evacuation, shelter, food and rebuilding. But FEMA would not come in until local mayors and governors issue an emergency declaration, which could then trigger a federal emergency, officials said during a telephone press conference Wednesday. FEMA also has not dedicated any advance funding for an emergency response, an official said during the press conference. Instead, it will "prioritize resources" it already has.

But Dueker said Palo Alto is better prepared than during the 1997-98 flooding. It has a regional agreement with East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Santa Clara Valley Water District, the San Fracisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, Stanford University and Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for mutual aid in the event of a disaster in any of the communities.

"We are more prepared in this storm season than in any in my career here, which started in the 1990s," he said.

But there are limits. While Palo Alto will do all that it can, the public expectation should not be that the city can do everything, he cautioned. Dueker said he hopes that people will take seriously recommendations to look out for their neighbors and themselves.

"It's not because government is trying to punt or weasel out of a job. There are a lot of ambiguities," he said. "There is not a computer screen with a smiley face and a frownie face" to tell officials when something will absolutely occur, he said.

While creek gauges now give responders and residents a 90- to 120-minute warning before flood levels might hit the Pope-Chaucer bridge (which spans San Francisquito Creek), there are no predictive systems for soil saturation or landslides, power outages, traffic snarls, sewage leaks or public health issues. And even the best science available is largely subject to human interpretation, he said.

Residents can help by staying informed, reporting potential or ongoing problems and helping elderly neighbors and those with disabilities, Dueker added.

The city has a robust storms web page, www.cityofpaloalto.org/storms, which includes links to a storm map, creek monitor and emergency contacts. The site also has a link to the new JPA flood early warning system, which can also be found at floodwarning.sfcjpa.org/.

Palo Alto will also have a sandbag giveaway on Dec. 13, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. or until they are all gone, at the Municipal Services Center, 3201 East Bayshore Road. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to help load the bags into vehicles for those in need of assistance, Dueker said.

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6 people like this
Posted by Bike Commuter
a resident of Ventura
on Dec 9, 2015 at 10:51 pm

We can all pitch in to rake debris from our neighborhood storm drains.

Drivers should avoid underpasses (especially Oregon Expressway under Alma) and drive very carefully during the worst downpours.

Finally we should prepare for outages with having a few days of food, potable water and batteries.

Our local emergency radio station is KZSU 90.1 FM.

6 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2015 at 12:08 am

>> "We are more prepared in this storm season than in any in my career here, which started in the 1990s," he said.

By having done nothing about the bridges and creeks that backed up in 17 years?

How about emergency removal of the Chaucer and Newell bridges that will at least help if the water stays within parameters of the 90s?

Just curious though, can this article be amended or another article be release with specifics on what exactly has been done and what are the predictions of its effectiveness in a flood as bad as 1997-98?

Did the levee at San Francisquito Creek in East Palo Alto that was damaged during a lesser El Nino event in December 2012 get repaired or redesigned?

I just say get rid of the Pope-Chaucer bridge ... that is a substantial step that can be taken and the only expense is a bit more traffic that we all hate but can deal with better than much of the City getting flooded out.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 10, 2015 at 12:53 am

Highest tide events (ref Web Link ):
Nov-25 11:37 9.5 ft (yacht harbor photo Web Link )
Dec-11 12:18 9.0 ft
Dec-24 11:14 9.6 ft
Jan-09 11:56 9.2 ft
Jan-21 10:06 9.2 ft
Feb-07 11:35 9.1 ft (Super Bowl Sunday)

Near new moon and full moon, similar plus/minus a day or two.
Daytime high tides. (Night-time high tides are a foot or two lower.)

An additional foot due to wind and rain could get interesting.

6 people like this
Posted by enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 10, 2015 at 12:40 pm

I don't think we are going to get much in Palo Alto. My mom is getting all frightened by the reports and yet the rain keeps passing Palo Alto by...some of it has to do with the geography, the mountain shadowing and Palo Alto's unique position to the mountains...but it's also a lot to do with the fact that the North Bay is a totally different situation. We still have effects of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge of High Pressure. Combine that with the fact that Southern California is going to get the brunt of El Nino, and I don't think there's much to worry about.

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 10, 2015 at 2:22 pm

I had a friend who lived in mid-town and had experienced the huge flood in the 1950's when much that was east of Middlefield was flooded.

1 person likes this
Posted by dennia
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 10, 2015 at 2:46 pm

I remember the great downpour and flood of 1958 when the creek behind our house in South Palo Alto that came within inches of overflowing. My parents were horrified, but as a kid I just sailed everything I had that could float sailing down the raging creek. The next year the creek was rebuilt with concrete and now could hold any disaster.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 10, 2015 at 3:07 pm

The 1957 earthquake, the 1958 flood, and a neighbor's garage fire around that time are the earliest events which I can remember.

3 people like this
Posted by CrePark
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm

Re: "I just say get rid of the Pope-Chaucer bridge"

Getting rid of that one bridge, without other fixes, would not change much; it would just transfer the flooding slightly downstream.

There has been too much focus on this one apparent channel constriction; the fact is that the creek channel below Pope-Chaucer cannot handle much more flow even if ALL the bridges were removed. The flood outbreak would just move downstream very slightly, perhaps a few hundred yards.

In the case of a another major flood, there would still be flow in the Crescent Park streets rushing toward the low spot of Palo Alto near Greer Park, where it would still pool up. The homes near Greer Park were built an area that was previously San Francisco Bay marsh. The water pools there because the “Bayshore Highway” walls it in.

The area just upstream of the University Ave Bridge flooded badly in 1998 and flooded slightly in 2012. It flooded toward East Palo Alto in the past. Last month, East Palo Alto built a wall on their side. Where will the floodwater flow be next time? Shall we get rid of that bridge too? It will just move the flooding downstream slightly. It would reduce our traffic problem very nicely.

The Middlefield Bridge flooded in 1998. In the case of any flood flow worse than the 1998, Middlefield will be a major floodwater breakout point. Water would flow through Crescent Park toward the low point... Greer Park... Shall we get rid of the Middlefield Bridge too?

The Newell Bridge is not a major flood risk. It has about the same capacity as the Middlefield Bridge. So no major flooding at Newell until we fix Middlefield. There are NO plans to fix Middlefield. Palo Alto's plans to replace Newell is primarily motivated by "available funds" from the State of California to replace “structurally deficient” bridges.

Any increase in channel capacity upstream of 101 puts East Palo Alto at serious risk. The channel capacity problem has to be addressed by first fixing the bridge at 101 and the channel downstream of 101.

After that, the best solutions involve solutions upstream of Middlefield.

1 person likes this
Posted by Phil Yuup
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Good thing the reservoirs are empty

1 person likes this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 10, 2015 at 6:28 pm

> Re: "I just say get rid of the Pope-Chaucer bridge"

>>>Getting rid of that one bridge, without other fixes, would not change much; it would just transfer the flooding slightly downstream.

First, I suggested removing both bridges, but the Chaucer would make the most difference.

Have you looked at the map lately?

First it would change a lot if the flow rate of creek was between two levels and the Chaucer bridge was gone there would be no backup behind it at all.

But, second, your assumption that it would not change much is wrong, all the people who would get flooded from Chaucer, South and East as happened before would not get flooded. That is a distinct improvement, but why don't you see that? You seem to be stating that if we cannot stop all flooding, we should not work to do anything? That seems wrong to me, but their might be a certain logic to it ... i.e. that after a big flood the more victims there are the more likely that something is going to happen to fix it. However, in 17 years nothing happened.

I think it would make sense to remove Chaucer St. bridge, even though I like that bridge, because if there is flooding, it show that removing the bridge worked or did not work. Chaucer St. Bridge already has plans to rebuild it higher so the opening under it can pass more water. Since everyone is talking about a clear and present danger of flooding, why not get started with phase 1 - DEMOLITION.

That would show us all that the City/Cities are serious about doing something to protect our residents against the many tens of millions of dollars of damage that occurred in the last big flood. It would also help real estate values and certainly the housing crisis ... as what do you think will happen to the price of housing with hundreds of families have to seek alternate places to live and are on the house hunting market all at the same time?

In the last big flood they put walls around the creek, so that it is possible that if the Newell Bridge did back up it would not be as bad.

The way I have heard it and understand it, removing the Chaucer St. bridge could protect against any flooding at all, and both bridges would help. Newell St. bridge is slated to get removed anyway.

The city just seems to be determined to do nothing. Why doesn't the Mayor, or the council send a communciation to Sacramento to get resources to get moving on something? Why are they talking about a bike bridge over 101 at this time?

4 people like this
Posted by Downstream resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 10, 2015 at 9:10 pm

Removing upstream bridges would cause more massive flooding downstream towards 101 and east palo alto). It was discussed during a town hall meeting and the city officials did point out that doing such a thing would open up lots of potential lawsuits against the city and it makes sense. What Crepark said makes a lot of sense, we need to start renovation from east palo alto (I just looked over the bridge near the palo alto USPS and saw lots of debris in the creek, not sure why basic things such as cleaning the creek has not happened) and gradually go upstream.

Like this comment
Posted by Newcomer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 12, 2015 at 6:09 am

I know nothing about the matter but couldn't the houses be raised? I know one city in Texas that regularly flooded applied for FEMA grants and loans and did this.

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