SAN JOSE, Calif. â€” Some residents returned home to sort through waterlogged furniture, toys and clothing after being abruptly evacuated when a surging creek carrying engine fuel and sewage water inundated thousands of homes in San Jose.
With water levels from Coyote Creek receding late Wednesday, officials said some of the 14,000 evacuated residents would be allowed to return home, although an evacuation order remained for parts of the city. Authorities warned residents to be careful about hygiene and handling food that may have come into contact with flood water.
“The water is not safe,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “There is contamination in this water and the contamination runs the gamut.”
Residents in knee-high rubber boots waddled through inundated street to get to their homes, passing by cars submerged in muddy water.
Victor Chen, his two children, ages 8 and 10, and his wife evacuated Tuesday night and returned to their home on 21st Street earlier Wednesday.
“It’s really tough to see. A home is all we worked for, and our family is all here,” Chen, 42, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And we had to leave it behind when the water was rising.”
Toys, extra mattresses, a TV, bikes and clothing were all ruined after the garage, dining room and one of the children’s bedrooms were flooded.
Liccardo acknowledged that the city failed to properly notify residents to evacuate during a flood emergency early Wednesday when some people said they got their first notice by seeing firefighters in boats in the neighbourhood.
“If the first time a resident is aware that they need to get out of their home is when they see a firefighter in a boat, that’s a failure,” Liccardo said at a news conference. “We are assessing what happened in that failure.”
Liccardo declined to go into detail, saying there would be time for reflection after the emergency was over.
Updated maps showing the evacuation areas were being posted on the mayor’s website.
Flood warnings were in place until Saturday because waterways were overtaxed, and another storm was forecast Sunday.
The city began alerting residents of the flood situation on Tuesday via social and mainstream media and sending emergency alerts to those who had signed up for it, said city spokesman Dave Vossbrink.
When water levels changed dramatically overnight, they sent police and firefighters door-to-door during the dramatic overnight evacuation.
“It was scary,” said Irma Gonzalez, 59, whose two-story apartment complex is alongside the creek. She was awakened about 2:30 a.m. by police pounding on her door. “They were like, ‘You’ve got to hurry up and go! Move it!'”
Gonzalez spent the night at her sister’s house and said she was thankful for the wakeup call and evacuation. “It’s better than to wake up and have water coming in.”
Several residents faulted the city for failing to provide proper warnings.
“The city dropped the ball on making sure that people were notified of the potential impact of this flood,” said resident Jean-Marie White, whose house and backyard were flooded. “Nobody had any clue.”
About 300 people stayed in emergency shelters set up by the city, while many found other accommodations.
Bob Benjamin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the water level in 30-mile long Coyote Creek reached a 100-year high during this week’s storm.
Downpours in the past few weeks have saturated the once-drought-stricken region and wreaked havoc for residents. At least four people have died as a result of the storms throughout the state in the past week.
Assistant San Jose City Manager Dave Sykes said officials first became aware of the rising water late Tuesday when firefighters began evacuating about 400 people from a low-lying residential area.
City officials did not believe the waters would spread to other neighbourhoods and did not expand the evacuation orders.
Coyote Creek flooded after Anderson Dam in Santa Clara County reached capacity during heavy weekend rains.
Managers of the dam are taking advantage of a break in the storms to draw down the reservoir, which is supposed to be limited to 68 per cent of capacity because of earthquake concerns but is now at 100 per cent, said Jim Fiedler, a chief operating officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
He said it could take nine weeks to bring it down to normal levels. Inspectors in 2010 discovered the dam is vulnerable to a major quake and $400 million is being spent to make it earthquake-proof by 2024.
AP writers Kristin Bender and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Scott Smith in Fresno and Amanda Lee Myers in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Janie Har, The Associated Press