Chuck Lenzi is fed up with floods and what he says is the county’s inability to prevent them or help the victims afterward. As a farmer of 35 acres of organic produce, he has lived through three floods going back to 1998. Each time, he said, neither the county nor the state did anything to help the rural community recover or repair damages.
Even though Lenzi came to speak his mind at the Jan. 17 meeting of neighbors and county officials on the corner of Shore Road and Lovers Lane, he didn’t really expect anything different would happen this time either. He said he was so frustrated that he was contemplating moving some debris onto San Felipe Road to make the county clean it up.
Approximately 30 residents who live along Lovers Lane over to San Felipe Road, and were affected by flood waters last week, showed up to hear what county Supervisor Mark Medina, Kevin O’Neill, deputy director of the county’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), and other county representatives had to say.
O’Neill told BenitoLink that the purpose of the meeting was to inform the residents about how the county was prepared to help them and to listen to their concerns. But as the meeting progressed and residents asked some tough questions, it became apparent that the county was prevented from doing much of anything about the flooding because of environmental laws and private property rights.
Along with OES, representatives from the county’s public works department, animal control, and the Red Cross were present to provide information and assistance.
“This community is amazing,” O’Neill said of those who showed up. “They’re very resilient and everybody just wants to help each other.”
O’Neill said he only knew of five families that had been displaced because of flood waters. He said the county was providing temporary housing for three of the families and he believed the other two were staying with families or friends.
Earlier in the day, O’Neill, along with Brent Barnes, Resource Management Agency director, along with a representative from the Department of Water Resources, evaluated the levee that had collapsed.
“It looks like squirrels burrowing into the levee probably caused a significant amount of damage and enough pressure built up and caused it to fail,” O’Neill said, adding that the breach could be 60 feet wide. “It’s probably 150 deep, going into the orchard. It’s massive. There is still a bank there, however, and the creek can come up perhaps eight feet before the failure of the levee becomes an issue.”
O'Neill explained the levee’s failure was not the only cause of flooding.
“The north side flooding of the creek was from the levee failure,” he said. “Maybe it rolled over somewhere else, too. To the south of the creek, that’s all from the creek and the overrunning of the banks. The creek is deep there, but it just wasn’t deep enough.”
The county will attempt to work with the property owners where the levee is located, O'Neill said.
“We understand there are restrictions when it comes to cleaning out creeks and working on levees from the state and federal government,” he said, adding, “It’s a private levee and the responsibility does lay with the property owner.”
O'Neill said the county is attempting to find out who built the levee, but he wasn’t sure when it was built. Lenzi said later that farmers built it in the 1930s.
Al Mallamo, job director for the Red Cross’ response to the flooding from San Benito County to the Oregon border, said the organization had been in the county since Jan. 7, arranging for shelters here, as well as in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and as far north as Guerneville. He said there has not been much use of the shelter (the Veterans' Memorial Building in downtown Hollister) in the county and they are now in stand-by mode if needed.
“Now we have service delivery sites where people can get counseling and further information and assistance,” he said. “We’re also doing distributions of coolers, shovels, tarps, clean-up kits and bleach, gloves and garbage bags.”
While food was provided at the emergency shelter, the Red Cross had not found a need to distribute food in the flood-impacted area, Mallamo said.
“Right now, we’re on stand-by waiting for the next series of storms, so we’ll be ready (Wednesday),” he said. “We’ll be ready if we need the stand-up shelters or evacuation centers. Whatever is needed, we’ll be here.”
Sadie Rabusin was concerned about the safety of the water supply. She said no one in the community knows whom to call about testing the drinking water. Darryl Wong, environmental health manager at San Benito County Environmental Health Department, told her there are local companies that will test the water, but the county could not legally recommend one. He told her the cost was about $40.
“My advice is to get a well digging contractor to check your well,” Wong told Rabusin. “They need to test the casing to make sure it wasn’t compromised. Make sure you’ve got somebody who knows what they’re doing, especially the wiring.”
Rabusin asked Wong if it was safe to drink the water and he advised her not to do so until it’s tested, especially if the wellhead was submerged during the flooding.
“Why take the chance?” he said. “It’s $40 for peace of mind and for your family.”
As families crowded around him, Supervisor Medina told them that if the creek rises again the county will conduct a reverse 9-1-1 call to warn them and let them know if they need to evacuate.
“I will make sure everybody gets the same message,” he said. “Communication at this time is the most important part of what we’re doing.”
O’Neill told the crowd that according to the National Weather Service (NWS) it is anticipated that there will be about 2 ½ inches of rain during the five-day course of the next storm.
“This is a little less than last week, however, Mother Nature is unpredictable and it could be more,” he warned. “We’re doing everything on our side to address this neighborhood if it should flood, as well as gather information to help with the recovery effort from the flood that just occurred. We need to hear what you need tonight so we can help you.”
O’Neill said one thing he had heard was that people were not notified about the flooding. He explained that before the flood, the creek did not have an officially-designated flood stage. Since the flood, he said the county coordinated with NWS to establish one.
“We now know exactly when this river (creek) will peak and we’ll have several hours of notice,” he said. “As part of being able to notify you, we have reverse 9-1-1. However, it doesn’t work with cell phones. You have to actually register (through the Code Red Mobile Alert app) your cell phones to your address so that we know that when we hit a certain area it picks up that your cell phone is there. That’s our number one way to notify you. The other way is to go door-to-door in partnership with the sheriff’s office, our search and rescue teams, and our amateur radio team we’ve been working on a plan to hit every house during that window we know it might flood.”
One man asked if there are any plans to clear the creek bed. O’Neill said the county could not clear the creek before the next storm. Later, he clarified that the county would not be able to ever clear the creek unless the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency were to change their positions. He said there was good news, though.
“The debris that’s in the creek is in there pretty good,” O'Neill said. “It’s not going anywhere, we hope. A lot of it is actually already washed out at the end of the creek. We’re doing our best, but time was not on our side on this one, and we didn’t have the tools to get in there. And much of the creek is on private property, which adds a whole other layer to this.”
The county had previously cleared the creek 500 feet in both directions near bridges on Lovers Lane and San Felipe Road, said O'Neill, adding that it was unfortunate, though, that it did not help upstream where debris was built up.
Rabusin wondered if it was possible to form a group to try to hire a company to test everyone’s water. O’Neill told her that the county could not recommend a company, but could help with organizing the group. She also expressed frustration in trying to get the county involved in cleaning up the creek. O’Neill told her that he understood and said Medina, as the district’s new supervisor, wants to address all their concerns, in particular, better methods of notifying everyone.
Lenzi agreed that timely notification was important, and then told of how the county failed in its efforts.
“We started flooding at 12:30 (a.m.) and it was rising rapidly at 1:30,” he said. “First, we called the Hollister Fire Department and asked if they had an evacuation route for us because we were unable to move because San Felipe was overflowing in numerous areas. The fire department said, ‘don’t call us, we can’t even help you, call 9-1-1.’ We called 9-1-1 because we could not get over the bridge to the 152, nor could we go south on San Felipe to Four Corners and hope to get out.”
He also complained that the most recent flooding was the third time he has had to go through the experience.
“The first was in 1998, the mother of all storms,” he said. “This one has surpassed that substantially. I have 40 acres of new fencing that is all gone. I don’t have insurance for that. We can only insure our buildings and homes. I don’t know how many times we can turn our cheeks to the situation at Pacheco Creek, which nobody wants to address.”
Lenzi said much of the debris from the creek is now on his ranch. He said he has been working for more than a week clearing the debris. He claimed that Hollister Public Works has not returned his calls. He said he now has several large piles of debris near San Felipe Road.
“We pay almost $17,000 in (property) taxes a year and yet we’re completely divorced from any services from the city because we’re unincorporated,” he said. “I’m going to request from your department (OES) that, hopefully, you can come out (Wednesday) with your front loader to haul out this debris that we’ve cleaned out. It will be thrown back on our property (should there be more flooding) if the county does not address the issue. They will address the issue if all the debris is drug out into the center of San Felipe Road. Then it’s a road hazard. We would like you guys to come out before we hook up our tractors and drag it out to the center of the road.”
Another woman spoke up, saying that 9-1-1 did not work for her.
“They said ‘call us back when there was real danger,’” she said. “I said, ‘there’s a river running through my property.” She went on to explain that there is no insurance available to her. “No one’s covering nothing. Not even my property. Nothing that we lost.”
A man asked what might happen if residents took it upon themselves to clear the creek. Lenzi told him the federal government won’t allow them to do so. Louie Valdez, county analyst, stepped up to address the issue, explaining the legal restrictions that prevent private citizens and communities from cleaning out the creeks. He said that the Resource Management Agency did, however, manage to obtain permission to clear the creek near two bridges.
“Beyond that, the restrictions are very clear,” he said. “They don’t want us messing with the habitat. That does not preclude the fact that we readily acknowledge that is a major issue. Logistically and financially, we do not have the capacity to get in there and clear that volume in such a short period of time. It’s a safety issue, as well. We can’t put people at risk out there. If they get stuck and we don’t get them out before the rains start that is a problem for everybody.”
A man asked what the county was going to do going forward. Valdez told the group that the Board of Supervisors had affirmed an emergency declaration and that a representative from the governor’s office would be in the county to conduct an initial assessment of the flood damage that would hopefully set things in motion for relief.
“We will martial those resources if and when they are made available to us,” Valdez said. “We have to go outside the area to get resources. The other question is ‘will they be made available to us?’ We’re not the only community that was flooded. We will, through Supervisor Medina’s office, advocate on behalf of the county.”
A woman asked if there would be any more sandbags made available. O’Neill said he already gave away 1,000 bags. He told the group he had another 1,000 in his car and would arrange for sand to be brought to the lot where they were meeting. She said the bags would be needed by Wednesday morning. Medina promised they would be there in time.
Another woman told of an eight-foot sinkhole that had opened on her property and that the county informed her she would be responsible for filling it in. O’Neill explained to her that incidents such as hers’ were the reason the county was trying to get the governor and even the president to declare the county a disaster area, so funds would be made available to individuals.
“We don’t have the tools or the ability to do it,” O’Neill said, “but the state and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) can come in here and address those concerns on private property.”
As many in the crowd continued to voice frustration and confusion, Valdez told them they could find many answers on the county’s website, sanbenitorecovers.org, where they could find a form to fill out to assess the damage and how much they think it is worth.
“That will help us, if and when there is a declaration by the governor, to let him know this is how much you’ve suffered and give us the resources that will be equitable to try an mitigate it,” O'Neill said.
A while later, as the meeting broke up and everyone headed home, Lenzi lingered a few minutes and told BenitoLink about his anger at the county and threatened again that if no one came to haul away the debris from his property he would drag it out onto San Felipe Road himself. He admitted the move probably would not be acceptable to the county.
“We may get somebody’s attention,” he reasoned, and added that if the county comes after him he will launch a class-action suit against the county and, perhaps, State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In a Jan. 18 OES press release O’Neill said:
San Benito County Office of Emergency Services would like to thank all who attended the community meeting last night and encourages those who were not able to attend to reach out to OES with any questions or concerns. OES would also like to thank everyone who has offered to help and donated goods and services for those affected by the recent floods.
Moving forward, OES will continue to gather information on the total impacts of the storm and will continue to assist resident through the recovery efforts from this major disaster. The county has proclaimed a local emergency due to the damages suffered from the past storm and in preparation for this upcoming round of rain. San Benito County has also called upon the Governor to proclaim a State of Emergency and to make available state funds. OES will continue to monitor the upcoming storm and with our partners remain ready to respond should to any flooding that may occur in our county. The major concern at this point is the Lovers Lane/San Felipe area of North County, however many other parts of the county also remain susceptible for significant impacts.
The National Weather Service is predicting 2.16” of rain to fall over the majority of the county between Wednesday, January 18 and Sunday January 23. At the Pacheco Pass area, the Weather Service is estimating 3.35-3.85” of rain.
The National Weather Service is also estimating that the Pacheco Creek is expected to reach 10.3 feet. The creek peaked at 18.9 feet during the previous storm and the flood stage is set at 12 feet.
OES is requesting residents who were impacted by the previous storm to fill out a brief survey to help us gather information regarding the damages caused by the storm. The survey can be found at sanbenitorecovers.org.
Sand Bags are available at the following locations:
1. San Benito County Yard, 3220 Southside Road, Hollister
2. Corner of Shore Road and Lovers Lane, 6501 Lovers Lane, located on private property, owner has granted access to anyone looking for sandbags.
3. San Juan Bautista City Yard, Corners of Second and San Jose Streets
4. Aromas Fire Station, 492 Carpenteria Rd.
5. Hollister Fire Dept. #2 (City of Hollister residents only), 1000 Union Road, Hollister
6. Hollister City Yard (City of Hollister residents only), 1321 South Street, Hollister
For more updates, please follow San Benito County OES on Facebook at facebook.com/SanBenitoCountyOES)