The city of Woodlake extends declaration of a local state of emergency over historic flooding; residents still question whether to rebuild or move from flood damaged property
WOODLAKE – As the city of Woodlake begins recovery after major storms, residents once again flooded the council chambers to voice their concerns over rebuilding their homes.
At their March 27 city council meeting, the city of Woodlake extended their declaration of a local state of emergency. The effects of the historic level flooding has riddled residents with fear over rebuilding their homes, with one resident, Marianna Cooper, saying that she is fearful that this level of flooding may wipe out her home again in the future.
“I don’t want to rush [rebuilding], if it’s just not going to be safe. If [city staff and council] have a little bit of guidance, should I wait a few months before we start the process of rebuilding within our home?” Cooper asked. “Some people I know are already cutting their walls, taking things out and trying to get their house in order. But I just don’t know, I need direction.”
Mayor Rudy Mendoza said that to wait to rebuild is the choice of the resident, however the city is going to bring as many resources as possible to make that a reality. City manager Ramon Lara said that in the case a rebuild would occur, the city, nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), would allow those homes to be rebuilt at their current elevation. There are funding options available for residents that the city is currently looking into, and Lara said that these funding options will likely come from the United States Department of Agriculture. However, the city is continuing to look into flood relief options.
“First of all I can see the pain in your face,” Mayor Rudy Mendoza said. “We are going to try to find as many resources as we possibly can… All I can tell you is if I were in your situation, I would do everything possible to get back into my home. I see that I see that in your face, I see that in everybody’s face, and that’s what we want.”
Lara said that FEMA employees are on site in the city and have fully declared the recent floods a natural disaster. Lara said they will “100%” be providing funding, they are just working out the details. He also said that the USDA has approved funding options as well, they’re just getting “everything put together.”
Preston Cooper, Marianna’s husband, voiced his concern at what this flood will do to the existing neighborhood. With the cost of flood repairs being high, and with many not having flood insurance because they were told they were not in a floodplain, many are questioning if it will even be worth it to rebuild. Preston said that this could potentially cause these homes to not be sellable, or to have a much lower value. He fears this would create a low income neighborhood.
“The [city] has been ruined by poor city planning, short sighted developers and a historic flood. [They are] gaslighting us and denying the existence of Antelope Creek going through the Hillside Estates, to raise up Hillside Estates directly on the path of Antelope Creek,” Preston said. “These [incidents] have taken away my peace and my home. I don’t care about accountability for the past. I care about accountability for the future.”
Residents came forward with complaints about the Hillside Estates development being built on elevated land. 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.
CITY RESPONSE MOVING FORWARD
Moving forward, Lara said that the city will be focused on cleaning up the current damages and working to prevent future disasters. To prepare for any future storms that would be rolling around this month, the city will continue to deploy booster pumps. They will also keep the k-rails up that were placed around the city amid the peak of the flood. These k-rails will be reinforced with more sandbags in the case another flood seeps into the city.
The city is continuing to work with the county, Caltrans and irrigation districts to ensure they “hold up their part of the bargain and do their part,” according to Lara. There has been a lot of clean up and maintenance in streets, manholes and also booster pumps, which Lara said have been working like they never have before. He also reassured residents that the city is continuously reaching out to Tulare County agencies, as well as district 4 supervisor Eddie Valero.
“We’ve tried to be as practical as possible. We reach out to the oversight agencies. We took it upon ourselves, along with Cal Fire, to actually clean out the debris that was starting to obstruct the St. Johns bridge,” Lara said. “We’ve gotten to a point where if they’re not doing it, we’re going to do it ourselves to make sure we keep the best interest of our citizens in mind.”
The city will also continue to pick up resident’s debris, trash and furniture items that were a result of the flood. For those who need to dispose of damaged goods, there are bins on site and are available as long as it’s needed. City staff will also remove any debris or furniture from the edge of a residents property in the case they can not move it over to the bins themselves. Lara said that staff cannot enter people’s homes due to liability reasons. However, if residents get their debris outside, city staff will help with the rest.
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 at an emergency meeting on March 20.
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. Mayor Mendoza also directed residents to fill out this document to ensure they quickly get the assistance they need.
CONCERNS OVER TERMINUS DAM
There were also concerns voiced about the Terminus Dam failing, and Woodlake being subjected to extreme flooding. However, that is not a concern for Woodlake or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that are overseeing the dam’s operations.
Lake Kaweah may also be opening their spillways after the next incoming storm. These spillways are designed to ensure the vast flows of incoming water do not damage the dam structure, according to Ryan Watson, project manager of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Watson had told The Sun Gazette in a previous interview that the dam is in no danger of breaking. Spillways being opened may cause some localized flooding, but not to the extent of Woodlake being under water, as some residents feared.
Dam structures at Kaweah Lake are stable, in good working condition and operating as designed, according to a press release from the Tulare County Sheriff Office. Residents can expect to see water activity over the spillways at each dam, which is normal. The press release also noted that water activity and releases over a spillway are not an indication of dam failure, but are part of the dam’s intended operation.