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click above to see more articles Palo Alto  Creek Action Committee

Form Letter To Demand Funding for Creek Study

On Monday, February 2, 1998, it rained all day. The weather reports were full of stories about a phenomena called "El Nino" which occurs in the Pacific Ocean bringing much warmer waters from the South up to the north Pacific. Some say that it has been caused by massive forest fires in Indonesia. It also brings very heavy rains. The last major "El Nino" was the winter of 1982/1983.

At our staff meeting at work, we talked about possible flooding. Flooding last occurred in 1955. My boss, Bob Strohecker, who also lives in Palo Alto just around the corner,, thought nothing would happen because the city of Palo Alto had made changes to the San Francisquito Creek to avoid future floods back in the 1950s. He was very confident no flooding would occur. I worried about the $5,000 red oak hardwood floor that I had just installed in my brand new family room addition.

The day continued without further comment about the rain. We were just entering our annual busy period preparing for the annual budget submission. A new financial system was also being implemented and we were scrambling to obtain the same cost information we previously received with the old system. The rain continued to pour down outside my office window. I called my wife to make sure she sent in the check for the flood insurance which expired at midnight. "Don't worry" she said, "We have a 30 day grace period".

At 9:00p.m., my children and I went to bed. At 11:30p.m., I was awakened by my wife, Pamela. A neighbor had just knocked on our door to tell us that the street was flooded and that we might want to get sandbags. In a stupor, I slowly got dressed and went outside to look for myself.

The street water's edge reached the inside edge of my sidewalk. A large white van was attempting to negotiate its way to a house three doors down from my own. It stopped in front of my house deliberating whether to proceed. The water reached the midpoint on his wheels in the street, which I judged to be between eight inches to one foot deep. The water was clearly deeper in the direction the van was headed.

I called the police on their non-emergency phone line. I told them that the water was a foot deep on DeSoto Drive. The office I spoke to said there was nothing the city could do. He never mentioned any danger of the San Francisquito Creek overflowing its banks. He never mentioned that a state of emergency had been declared by the city. He never mentioned any need to seek higher ground elsewhere.

I finished getting dressed and at the insistence of my wife, got into the car to go to Mitchell Park at the other end of Palo Alto to shovel sand into plastic bags which my wife gave me and bring them back in my Honda Civic sedan. As I started the motor and was about to leave, she stopped me, screaming that the water was already too deep for the car to safely get through. I was relieved.

While I had been getting dressed and making my phone call, Pam had been busy moving storage boxes out of the garage and into the house which is six to eight inches higher than the garage floor. We also moved some books on the lowest shelf onto the desk just in case. I moved all my power tools off the garage floor and on to the patio table on the deck outside. We moved some important papers, our brand new 9'X12' Persian rug, and other things off the floor. Our children remained asleep in their rooms, so we decided not to disturb them or their belongings.

I took one last look at the street outside. The water had creeped 22 feet up our driveway to within three feet of our garage door. At 1:00a.m. we went back to sleep exhausted wondering how we would make it through the next day.

At 3:30a.m., I woke up to go to the bathroom. As I put my feet over the side of the bed, I suddenly realized that I was ankle deep in cold water. I immediately shook my wife and woke her up. Very quickly we woke the children and told them to get dressed. I got dressed as quick as I could.

Unfortunately, we all had chest/captain beds with drawers underneath. In these drawers, most of the clothing was already soaked and mud stained. We quickly grabbed anything dry in those drawers and threw them on top of the beds to keep them dry, then we helped our children get dressed. They were both groggy and slow to realize the peril. Pam helped Lia, our 10 year old daughter, while I helped Peter, our 5 year old son. As I was dressing Peter, I noticed that the water was still rising. It was now close to the electrical outlets. I found the flashlights, gave one to both children and to Pam, then I went outside to turn off the main electrical switch. As I went through the living room, I saw the storage boxes Pam had brought into the house from the garage floating on the water.

My five year old son was crying hysterically as I carried him to the kitchen and placed him on the counter which was higher than any other chair or table in the house. I told him to shine his flashlight out the window in order to attract attention to our plight. As I was speaking to him, I thought I heard a noise in the dark outside. I yelled out, "Is anybody out there"? Somebody yelled back "Its the fire department". I quickly moved Peter next to the kitchen window and asked the fireman to keep him company while I continued to pack our essentials. I needed to pack my antibiotics and asthma medicine before I left. All this time Pam was also packing dry clothes. We all put knapsacks on our backs.

At 4:30a.m., the water was just above my knees and we were ready to leave. I carried Peter to a boat that the firemen had waiting outside our front door. I gave my daughter, Lia, a lift into the boat and then my wife got in. Now that I was outside I could view the neighborhood. No one else had their lights on. I realized they might still be asleep and unaware of the disaster. There are many other children smaller than my son on this block and some elderly invalids too. I told the fireman they should sound out a siren and wake people up, but they politely told me everything was under control.

I went to lock the front door, but couldn't pull it closed. One of the firemen tried to help me, but it was no use. The door was already warped so badly that I could not apply enough force from the outside to pull it shut. I decided to lock the door from the inside where I could push it closed and exit through a side door. One fireman came with me, and I was able to lock the door from the inside. We both went out through the steel garage door which shut without any problem. By the time the fireman and I came around to the front of the house, the boat had left. The fireman left me at that point to help others. The water came up to my waist as I waded out to the entrance of DeSoto Drive where the water was shallower.

At the DeSoto street entrance there was a fire truck with its lights on. I got into the truck an waited. My wife, Pam and the children had gone on somewhere else. I knew they were safe, but felt a little anxious not to be with them. To me, the silence all around me in this emergency was deafening. I asked the fireman at the wheel to sound the sirens, but he politely refused.

For a long time, I just waited silently and alone, except for the driver, on the fire truck. My next door neighbors on both sides of my home arrived, also by boat. At about 5:15a.m., the fire truck drove off to the main library on Newell. There, a school bus was waiting which would take us to the Red Cross shelter set up at Cubberly Cultural Center at the south end of Palo Alto. I was amazed that only three blocks away from where I lived, the street was dry. People here were sleeping in their homes, totally oblivious to the crisis just around the corner.

The school bus did not leave immediately, but waited for more flood victims. Unfortunately, many of the flood victims had also rescued their cats. I am allergic to cats and quickly found that I had to get off the bus and remain in the rain in order to breath. Slowly, more neighbors began to arrive at the bus. I recognized most of them as residents of DeSoto Drive, but there were some people from other streets to the north (Dana?), including a very elderly couple who could barely walk. I barely recognized one neighbor who lived across the street, but whom I rarely saw. Now I was watching him take off his pants to change out of his pajamas into regular dry clothes. We both laughed.

At 6:20a.m. the bus left and we arrived at the Cubberly Cultural Center at about 6:30a.m. The Red Cross was there waiting for us with coffee and doughnuts. The gym next door had been converted to a giant bedroom with cots for sleeping. I saw other neighbors there and it seemed like a DeSoto Drive reunion for awhile. I began asking about my wife and children. A Red Cross volunteer ask me if I was Mr. Economos, and then told me that my wife had given her the message that my family had gone to stay with my father-in-law, Charlie Hakl, in his one bedroom apartment in midtown Palo Alto.

I called my father-in-law's apartment and spoke to my wife. The children were already asleep. Charlie came to Cubberly in his car to pick me up and take me to his apartment. When I arrived, I hugged my wife and we both took a nap.

An hour later when we woke up, we were still a little dazed. We tried to consider our next step. It was clear we wouldn't be living at home any time soon, so we called up the newspapers to put our subscriptions on hold. I called some people at work to tell them I would not be coming in. My boss did not answer his phone, so I tried calling him at home. I spoke to his wife briefly and then she gave the phone to him. I quickly reminded him of his confidence in the city's flood prevention measures. He told me his house was undamaged, but surrounded by too much water to drive his car. He said the Duveneck elementary school across the street from his home was also partially flooded.

View of Duveneck Grade School

from Bob Strohecker's house

We tried calling our house and found out there was no phone service. We called Pacific Bell to set up an automatic message service. Then we decided to call for a tow truck to haul our two cars to the mechanics shop to be evaluated and salvaged. However, when I spoke to AAA, they were not allowing any tow trucks into Palo Alto because of continued flooding. We then called Ellison's towing service directly and requested that the cars be towed at our own expense. Charlie graciously allowed us to use his car to go to the house and meet the tow truck. We left the kids with Grandpa.

View outside from front door

Living Room^

<<View inside from front door


When we arrived back at our home at 10:00am, the eastern half of DeSoto Drive was still a lake one to two feet deep in water. We drove cautiously on t our home. There was still mud and water all over the house. The garage was still flooded with six inches of water. The cardboard storage boxes which Pam had brought into the house from the garage the previous midnight were now a soggy mess all over the floor. We immediately began to pick them up and place them on tables and counters above the floor. The wood in chest/captain beds were all warped and all the mattresses were soaked with creek water. I tried to pull open one the drawers which contained my sweaters, and the door front broke off into my hands.

We continued to clean up until 3:00 p.m. The tow truck never did arrive. He wouldn't have made it through the water anyway. When we got back to our new one bedroom apartment, we called our insurance agent to find out our claim number. He told us that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) refused to sent up a claim until our check for the premium was received and cleared the bank. Pam had a sunken look on her face and said she was sorry.

Click here for kitchen, bathroom, and living room photos

Early the next day, Wednesday, 2/4/98, we tried calling the NFIP directly. We talked to a manager who said he would take care of it. He said to call him the next day and everything would be done. We called AAA and they promised to tow our cars away. Pam and I then left for DeSoto Drive once more. There was still mud all over the sidewalks and street. There was also a distinct increase in the hustle and bustle on the street. People were busy throwing things out and cleaning up. There were lots of commercial trucks of all kinds.

I went to visit my neighbors to see what I ought to be doing. Many had called professionals who specialized in flood cleanup. After seeing the work of one company who looked like they knew what they were doing and getting a recommendation from a neighbor, I hired one. I began to see dumpsters in many driveways. I realized I would need one and called the Palo Alto Sanitation Company (PASCO). I ordered the last large dumpster available. They charged $75 plus $491 per dump. There was also an extra charge if you kept the dumpster for more than a week.

In addition to finding out what should be done, I found out that not everybody had the same insurance policy. Many of my neighbors had insurance only for their structure. They didn't even know insurance for contents was available some said that they were specifically told by their agent that it wasn't available. Many older people who had paid off their mortgage had no flood insurance at all. One man had thought he was covered under hazard insurance only to find out the day after the flood that he was wrong.

Click here for Family Room photos


Later we saw some moving vans and inquired why they were needed. People we hauling away their furniture that would otherwise continue to sit in the mud. Clothing was packed up to prevent mildew. We called in the movers and the took away some furniture and clothing. We stayed until dark picking up, and cataloging our losses. Then we went back to the apartment exhausted.

Click her for photos of the Garage


Early on Thursday morning, we called the NFIP once more. The manager we had spoken to the day before was unavailable. Our claim was still not registered. We got the same excuse about the check as the day before. We called our insurance agent once more to see if there was something he could do. He got back to us half an hour later to tell us that we could pay by credit card. We called the NFIP once more and paid the premium once more. We then asked to be issued a claim, but the clerk told us that she could do nothing until it was in her computer. She said it could take one to four days from the time of payment.

We went back to the house once more. We began cataloging the contents we had lost for the insurance adjusters. Duveneck mothers, unaffected local neighbors, and coworkers from Pam's orchestra (she is a musician) started to call with offers of assistance. We put them all to work. We needed lots of help with laundry. Some helped catalog our loss, others went to stores to find out prices. Others helped pack unaffected items and took them away for storage to prevent mildew.

Click here for Bedroom photos

On Friday, February 6, we called the NFIP once more. Our payment was finally showing up on their computers and we were able to register our claim. An adjuster was immediately assigned. We were told to expect them on Wednesday, February 11, eight days after the flood. It was a relief to get just this far.

When we arrived at our home, the dumpster was in our driveway. There was now a dumpster in every one of the 40 driveways on DeSoto Drive except for two houses. We now started hauling the furniture into the dumpster. Away went the sofa, reclining chairs, bedroom furniture and mattresses. Away went the appliances, clothing, and many other items. Later, workers came by to remove the red oak hardwood floor I had just installed in my new family room addition. At 4:00 p.m., city workers came down our street to clean off the sidewalk. These were the first city representatives seen since the flood. They provided the only help we received from the city except for the firemen who rescued us.

When we went back to the apartment, we checked our phone messages and found that our cars had been totaled by our auto insurer, AAA. This was a problem because the blue book value was only enough for one new car. Coming up with the money for another car, even a used one was going to be very difficult, especially since I had to pay $15K for the cleanup before I could be reimbursed by NFIP. We became very depressed. Pam talked to her father. Her father talked to his wife's brother in Albuquerque. My parents are dead. I called my cousins and aunt in Chicago.


note: water still flowing over deck.

On Saturday, 2/7/98, I started looking for a replacement car. I also went to furniture stores to check prices to use in estimating my contents loss. I started at the Hertz used car parking lot in Millbrae. They had one year old cars with 20,000 to 30,000 miles at about $1000 off new car prices. However, all their cars had air conditioning and power windows. They had no Hondas, which is what my last 3 cars had been.  In Redwood City I went to several natural wood furniture stores which carried the kind of furniture we had previously owned. They provided me with quotes. I spent several hours there.

One of Pam's coworkers, Mimi Carlson, the principal flute for the San Jose Symphony, told Pam her family could lend us a car for a month until we were able to buy our own. Mimi's husband, Eric, was a past mayor of Los Gatos.

During the next few days, Pam continued to clean with charitable help from many sources. By now, the telephones were working, so I started calling contractors from our home to obtain estimates to for wallpaper, flooring, and new walls. The house was still a mess and there was a low roar from the sound of fans and dehumidifiers constantly churning in the background. I also had to make on-going phone calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA), AAA, Farmer's Insurance, the Santa Clara Assessor's Office, and of course, NFIP. The files I accumulated grew to about a foot thick.

We hooked up our home PC which had not been damaged to my father-in-law's monitor in his apartment. During the evenings, we itemized all our personal losses using the costs obtained by Duveneck grade school mothers. The total personal loss excluding cars, was over $65,000.

On Wednesday, February 11, at 2:30 p.m. , eight days after the flood, we had our first meeting with the adjusters sent by the NFIP. Their names were Marvel and Andy Reed, a husband and wife team from Colorado working through a firm headquartered in Minnesota. They ask for all our paperwork on itemized losses, photographs, and all insurance records. They spent over an hour taking measurements throughout the house.

After the adjusters left, the cleanup continued. The phone calls continued. We received payment for our totaled cars. We began shopping for a new one. The Carlson's told us they would be willing to donate their car to us through our church. Our priest came by to bless the house (we were covering all our bases) and said this would be OK.

We started moving damaged furniture out of the house and into the dumpster. All the flooring throughout the house was pulled up and thrown away. Slowly, we filled the dumpster. By Sunday evening, February 15, the dumpster was filled to the brim.

On Monday morning, February 15, President's Day, PASCO hauled the filled dumpster away. Later in the morning, we paid our cleaning bill, $12,880 by check. In the evening we bought a new Honda Civic for $14,500 by check. Total outflow in one day: $27,380. This was very stressful.

Telephone calls continued, but by Tuesday afternoon, I knew I would be able to go to work the next day on Wednesday, February 18, 1998. The first thing I found on my chair was my time sheet docking me vacation for the time I spent away from the office.

The next big goal was to be able to move back into our home. Friends of ours, Cindy and Alex Tseng, were moving to a new home several blocks from their old one in Palo Alto, but were remodeling the new home first. As a result, they were willing to give us the old refrigerator, garbage disposal, a washer and a dryer from their new home which they would be replacing.

During the next week the Tseng's contractor, Ken Widmont, brought the appliances over and installed them in our home. He looked around and felt sorry for us. His sister had been flooded on the Russian River a few years before and he understood the problems were having with insurance adjusters. He said he might be able to get his carpenters to donate their time to do some work for us.

The Carlson's gave us bunk beds and a mattress for our two children. Ute Hayes, SLAC's Housing department offered me a sofa and even took me down to the storage area to see what was available, but Joan Parker, who works for her, told me her daughter in Burlingame had a very clean sofa she was about to donate to Goodwill.

We called our church to find somebody with a pickup truck who could pick up the sofa and deliver it to us. We found Mark Cosenza who lives in Burlingame. On Saturday, February 28, 1998 he came to our home with the sofa in his pickup truck. He was aghast by the bare concrete slab we were going to have to live on. He said he was a general contractor currently working in the Transamerica pyramid in downtown San Francisco. He said he was installing new carpeting and thought he might be able to get us the old remnants to use in our house. I told him anything would be appreciated.

On Sunday, a friend from SLAC, Chris Foundoulis, came over with his pickup and the two of us hauled my stove, which I couldn't fit in the PASCO dumpster, to the dump. We also picked up an extra unneeded mattress for the bunk beds from the Tseng's new home. Next, we headed for Los Gatos to pick up the bunk beds from the Carlson's.

When we returned from Los Gatos with the bunk beds, we found Mark Cosenza waiting for us with a truck load of carpeting. Mark went into the house to measure each room. He then took the carpeting out of his truck and laid it on the street and began to cut it to size with a utility knife. Then together we hauled each piece of carpeting into the house and laid the pieces in each room. I thanked him profusely as he left.

On Saturday, March 14, 1998 Ken Widmont showed up at my home with a bunch of carpenters. They arrived at 9:00 a.m., each in his own pickup truck. There were so many, it looked like a FBI sting operation. They spent the entire day installing sheetrock and shear walls in several rooms. We fed them pizza and gave them beer at the end of the day.

Tim Widmont (far right) and his crew

On Monday, April 27, 1998 we moved back to my father in laws apartment and construction began on the whole house.  All the walls, floors, cabinets, and doors were removed and replaced.  We spent the next four months sleeping on my father-in-law's living room floor.  We had all the typical nightmares with contractors that one normally expects with remodeling.  One of the more difficult problems was to see everyone around us, outside of DeSoto Drive, going on with life as if nothing had happened, while we continued to live like refugees.   After moving back into our home, it still took several months to buy replacement furniture.  Nothing is quite the same, some things are better and some are not.  As of January, 2000, we still have one electric line to replace and need to buy one reclining chair to replace the two we lost. 

Most of our neighbors are also back to normal, however, an older couple who live next door still have not rebuilt.  They continue to live with friends and visit their house daily.   Another family on DeSoto Drive decided to tear down their house and rebuild several feet higher.  They currently expect to move in during the Spring of 2000.

The conditions which caused the flooding still exist. San Francisquito Creek is the only creek on the peninsula which has not been re-engineered to prevent flooding.  As a result of the flood and citizen protests, Palo Alto has organized with Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to form a Joint Powers Committee, but no concrete action has yet taken place.  Actual reconstruction is not expected for at least 10 years and will probably require a special tax to foot the expected $200 million cost.  The possible solutions to flooding our hampered by environmentalists concerned about 75 trout that still swim up the San Francisquito Creek and by concerns that the creek which is currently surrounded by trees and other vegetation could be turned into concrete and barb wire like some other peninsula creeks.


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