Woodlake city staff and council updates residents on storm relief efforts, hears from residents about flood damages at emergency meeting
WOODLAKE – A sea of residents from West Kaweah Street and surrounding areas flooded into the city council chambers on March 20 to voice their frustrations and fears about the most recent flooding.
Joshua Diaz, a resident of Woodlake who lives on West Kaweah Street, had to escape the flooding in his home by crawling out of his window alongside his wife and children. The floodwaters were so deep, that it reached all the way up to his dog’s neck, who he had to scoop up from the water. When Diaz first bought his home, he was not living in a flood zone. Like many in the area, Diaz went without flood insurance under the notion his home would not be affected in the future. Currently, the city of Woodlake has found that the flood zone areas do need to be updated.
“We have farm laborers, we have people working minimum wage, we have individuals that whenever the flood happened they had to go back to work the next day, they couldn’t tend to the flood,” Diaz said. “Because every day of work is not only food, or things for their family, but now that money is going to go to repairs because they didn’t have flood insurance.”
Mary Cooper, who lives near Diaz in North Pine Street, expressed that she has lived in her home for her entire life, and has never seen her street become flooded like it had been. The culprit to Cooper and Diaz’s eyes were Hillside Development and outdated flood zones.
Hillside Development is new to Woodlake, and was built on top of an old olive orchard. Earth was moved to elevate the ground for the development. This caused water that was originally supposed to flood where the subdivision was built, to then trickle down into older homes on West Kaweah, North Pine, Cajon and more, according to Cooper and Diaz.
“It’s not a flatland anymore. You created an increase in height for that area, creating all this water drainage down. Whatever piping or tubing you guys have done is not enough,” Cooper said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I lived in that house my whole life. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this would naturally happen.’ That’s impossible.”
Diaz and Cooper were not the only ones under the impression that they were not living in a flood zone area. Nathan Verdugo, a resident on West Kaweah Street, was reassured by his real estate agent in 2012 that his home was not in a flood zone, so flood insurance was not a necessity. However, Verdugo and many others suffered from floodwaters up to their knees after the last major storm. Many are questioning if they should even rebuild.
“I’m here to voice that concern for all the neighbors that suffered with the flooding. None of us had flooding insurance because I don’t know what was done if there was rezoning in that area. But clearly, somebody didn’t do their homework,” Mrs. Acosta, a resident of West Kaweah, said.
Diaz stated that he fears the city could have a potential “levee war” on their hands, meaning that whatever home is higher will be safe, meanwhile the older, lower homes will be subject to flooding instead. He also brought documents that stated civil engineers from 1971 had predicted that a flood would occur 50 years down the line in their Tulare County flood management plan. Diaz questioned whether the city took heed to their warning.
SUBDIVISION, FLOOD ZONES OR BOTH
Before public comment, city manager Ramon Lara had already heard concerns about the new subdivision affecting the flooded area. Lara said that the original plans had been approved because the engineer they were working with at the time said it would be a sufficient place to build the necessary stormwater drains and infrastructure. Lara said that the city staff also recently ran through the plans and models of the subdivision. However, they found that the flooding was mostly caused by an overload on the city’s stormwater systems, which were built for typical flood events. However, they were trying to handle heavy rainfall back to back.
City engineer Monique Mello said that the original orchard where Hillside is now had a low spot in it where floodwaters would run off into, but argued that it was a small area that was low. She said that the average rainfall in Woodlake is roughly 30 inches per year, but this year they have seen a 200% increase of that. She also reported that within the county, 100,000 acres were flooded and there was $16 million worth of damage.
“Upstream of Hillside where Antelope Creek is, you can see a lot of properties have been flooded,” Mello said. “A lot of areas have been impacted. Unfortunately, with all of this rainwater, all of the snow melts, it’s just really impacting everywhere, within the city and on the outskirts as well throughout the county.”
According to Mello, there is a 40 inch pipe that runs through the subdivision for stormwater, and it carries roughly 1,500 cubic feet per second. She said that even with this, the pipe was overwhelmed with all of the rain and snow melt. To further study this, she said that the city created a hydraulic model using a hydraulic engineering center’s river analysis system. It is a software used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it determines if the development would affect the floodplain.
“It was determined based on current topography that the existing flood insurance rate maps for the area needed to be updated. So the engineer has been working and processing a letter of map revision with FEMA, in order to get that updated,” Mello said.
CITY’S PREPARATION & RESPONSE
Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman said that the fire department has been conducting missions all week to fix all the breaches in the Tule River and the St. John’s. The county departments have been working closely with city departments and staff, as well.
“Both [previous] storms were pretty devastating, but this last one, everything was so saturated that we tried to get out in front of it but it was just a storm of biblical proportions,” Norman said. “You go through these things, and you always empathize. You don’t realize it until you have an incident within your own house.”
Lara gave a rundown of the city’s procedures amid a storm, and said that they first notify CalTrans, Tulare County partners and irrigation districts. They also disperse teams to clean up stormwater debris, especially from drains, ditches and manholes. Additionally, they begin distributing sandbags to residents, as well as placing them in highly flooded areas. Pumps are also placed around town to drain water as it flows into the city.
“We reach out to the county of Tulare, because they have an irrigation district which is Antelope Creek which is key to our storm drain system, and make sure that they’re able to maintain the system and open any gates as needed,” Lara said.
This comes after one local family, the Diaz family, came forward with complaints that the floodgates near their home were not opened during the peak of the storm. The closed gates had caused their property to become massively flooded. These gates were rusted shut, and city officials were unable to open them because the gates are in the county of Tulare’s jurisdiction.
The floodgates are connected to both Antelope Creek and the Wutchumna Canal. There are five of these gates, which are large steel doors that are meant to be opened in the case of heavy rainfall to prevent the creek from flooding over its natural path. Antelope Creek flows along the eastern edge of their property, and crosses paths with the canal, which flows on the south side of the property.
The storm raged on Friday, but resident Sarah Diaz said the gates were not opened until Tuesday. However, the county did not open them. Instead, a crew from the Wutchumna Ditch Company came out and pried open the rusted and broken gates.
Community development director Emmanuel Llamas said that the city started reaching out to residents about the upcoming storm on March 8, sharing information about available sandbags in order to prepare for the storm that rolled in on March 10. To help relieve the pressures of sustained damages for some families, Llamas and a local officer went door to door to invite residents to a flood relief donation event that was held at F.J. White Learning Center.
“It’s very urgent information that is critical. We will make sure it gets to you. We want to be a resource for you guys here,” Llamas said.
Llamas outlined other flood relief options as well, such as CSET’s transportation program for those who lost their vehicles due to flooding. At the meeting, there were also property damage report forms. These forms go straight to the state and federal government, according to Llamas. Once the city assesses all of the damages, that information is sent to FEMA in order to receive funding and assistance as soon as possible.