After the flood
SN&R explores how Sacramento’s most vulnerable residents—its very young and very old—might fare in a worst-case flood scenario
Every flood season, utilities manager David Brent gets a lump in his stomach.
As early as August, Brent begins preparing for the rainy months, when hundreds of city employees go out into chill downpours to clear storm drains of leaves from Sacramento’s lush canopy. With the gutters and drains running clear, rainwater moves through the city’s pumps and into Sacramento’s river system. As the season deepens, snowmelt joins the flow, and Sacramento enters its annual battle against what are, ironically, its greatest assets: the two mighty rivers that converge here.
“To prepare for the rainy season,” Brent told audiences in Natomas, “you might be surprised what we go through.” Like many flood professionals, Brent worries over the comparatively fragile levees that surround Sacramento’s residential populations.
At public forums on the subject, the message was clear: “The American River can come up very swiftly,” said one expert. “A multitude of things can fail. … The river is constantly trying to wear that levee away.”
“Levees are our first and last line of defense,” Brent told Natomas residents in October. “We will always be in a floodplain. We will always be preparing for a flood.”
Law-enforcement officials showed more confidence, explaining that the city was well-protected by a net of agencies working closely and cooperatively. But Brent, engineering manager for the city’s utilities department, used a slide projector and a series of maps to show residents how a serious break in one of the city’s levees could, over a period of days, bury populated areas of Sacramento under 15 feet of water.
If such a possibility seems remote, consider a letter fom Senator Dianne Feinstein and a bipartisan group of California representatives requesting almost $50 million from the federal government for flood control: Sacramento “has the lowest flood protection of any major city in the country: approximately 85-year protection,” said the letter. “Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had 250-year protection.” (By mid-November, Congress had promised California $40 million for flood control.)
Brent’s maps were the visual representations of 18 separate flood scenarios the city examined. Geographical information systems (GIS) mapped out exactly where each simulated breach would occur, where the water would flow and how quickly. Companion maps showed evacuation routes becoming impassible over a series of hours or days—in some cases, minutes.
A break on the American, for instance, would fill certain areas of Natomas with a foot of water within an hour, Brent explained. At that depth, roads become impassible.
“You’re not driving out of there,” he said.
Other evacuation routes would be blocked off one after another as the waters continued to rise.
Sacramento Fire Chief Joe Cherry and others explained that evacuations would be ordered well in advance of such an emergency and that fragile populations would be evacuated first.
Audiences might have been reassured, but no more than 1,000 people attended the two Natomas forums. Many others still have no idea exactly what would happen during a catastrophic flood. Who would come and get the elderly? Where would they be taken? When would help arrive?
Wondering how Sacramento’s most vulnerable residents would fare in a flood, SN&R visited a number of fragile communities, asking their administrators what would happen. While many had begun planning, others had never considered the possibility of a levee failure—and some of these people were in positions of power, watching over the very young and the very old.
Welcome to a worst-case scenario
As an example, let’s say Sacramento experiences a particularly wet winter, a winter that drops tons of snow on the Sierras before warm, wet storms flow in from Hawaii, melting the snowpack and sending fresh snowmelt into swollen rivers and reservoirs.
The Sacramento River on the western edge of downtown and the American River along the north edge are both hemmed in by levees—snaking pyramid-shaped berms of dirt and vegetation running along the banks. Some are topped by roads that look down onto bucolic parkway on one side and populated cityscape on the other.
As the rivers swell with water from the storm drains and the Sierras, certain triggers tell the city and county that the situation is growing serious. When the American River’s reached a depth of 40 feet, city crews are prowling along the levees. They’re looking for two things: spots where the river might overflow; and seepage, a “boil” indicating that water has moved under a slurry wall reinforcing the levee and surfaced on the other side, eroding the levee’s strength and threatening a break.
As the rivers swell, officials establish an emergency operations center (EOC) on high ground. There, the city, the county and law-enforcement agencies coordinate a tiered response.
With brown water rushing through the rivers’ narrow channels, threatening to spill over the banks, the National Weather Service offers dire predictions of more storms, and officials carry out a set of defensive actions. They decide to close and brace the city’s first floodgate on Northgate Road and evacuate the mobile-home park nearby. The gate consists of two doors, each nestled into the levees on either side of the road. Crews of 10 men swing the two gates into place and stand on the back of a truck to tighten the toggles that hold the halves together. They don’t like to close the gate unless its necessary, one of the engineers has told reporters. It closes off an evacuation route.
Brent and county administrators hear that the river has risen toward 42 feet and contact their bosses, including the city manager, who helps make the difficult decision to call a voluntary evacuation.
Imagine that in the low lands of Natomas, schools are holding morning classes, the students moving through the rain from room to room. In a six-bed nursing home, only one caregiver is on staff. In mobile-home parks, the ground is already saturated and flooding. Rainwater pools on intersections and dips in the roads.
Evacuation details spread through the community by radio and television and through the city’s new reverse 911 system. Assuming it’s up and active in time, the system calls 10,000 landlines in 10 minutes. The recorded message asks residents to press a button if they need help evacuating. Law enforcement responds.
Imagine, as the city has, that things become more serious when a spot along the north bank of the American River gives way to the water’s relentless pressure and slumps, opening a gap that lets the pent-up waters rush from behind the levee into the parkway and toward neighborhoods that sit low in the basin.
The voluntary evacuation quickly becomes mandatory, and administrators realize that one of their worst-case scenarios is actually occurring.
Head east, say local newscasters, to high ground.
As the waters tear away sections of the levee, people fill their cars with possessions and stream toward schools to pick up their kids. Some slow down enough to knock on the doors of their fragile neighbors. Others check to see if they have enough fresh food and water to ride it out before heading for the second stories of their homes. Regardless of the evacuation order, some certainly will choose to ride it out.
The city has sealed one evacuation route with the floodgate, so people head east in droves.
Police cars cruise through communities, telling people to leave at once. Helicopters spin overhead, spreading the news of the evacuation through loudspeakers while the city’s emergency sirens wail.
While residents try to flee, emergency officials are trying to manage everything from the breach to the evacuation and the setup of shelters.
Officials have called in 250 Regional Transit buses to help the elderly and the ill. Paratransit contributes vehicles specifically outfitted for the disabled. Civil servants have accessed Brent’s maps, looking up the locations and contact information for nursing homes and hospitals.
People stream onto Highway 80, heading for McClellan Park. If a proposed regional disaster plan has been approved in time, “assistance points” along the freeway will offer services: Fueling trucks provide 3 to 5 gallons of gas to evacuees, medical coordinators tend to those on the roads who are sick, and shelter coordinators point evacuees toward the nearest safe place.
The waters begin to flow through town, curling up against car tires and buildings, finding the quickest course to the lowest sections of South Natomas.
How much time do officials have to clear an area before evacuation routes disappear under muddy floodwaters? Where do they tell people to go if everyone’s fleeing the city through the same narrow evacuation routes?
That’s one thing about evacuation plans, Jerry Colivas of the city Office of Emergency Services has said. “It’s hard to tell … until the event occurs.”
Identifying the most vulnerable
Consider this quote from a report prepared in part by the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency: “The flood-control facilities protecting Sacramento along the Sacramento and American Rivers were designed and constructed based on rainfall data collected during the first half of the 20th century. However, since 1950, the American River watershed has experienced five floods larger than any recorded in the pre-1950 period, with the floods of 1986 and 1997, the highest of record.”
Officials realize Sacramento’s tenuous position. They’re mapping out the locations of schools and nursing homes for future reference. They’re holding multiple public forums and handing out flood-preparedness brochures. Even with the enormous government effort, Carole Hopwood, emergency-operations coordinator for the county, insists that people have to take more responsibility for themselves and their loved ones.
“There is not anybody who has enough resources to get everybody out of here,” said the frank-talking Hopwood. “It can’t just be the government. I don’t have enough cops to go to every corner. … The family and friends of these fragile populations have to have their own plans.”
Especially in the case of an unforeseen levee break, people not only would have to follow Hopwood’s advice, but many also would have to take responsibility for the people under their authority in schools, nursing homes and child-care facilities.
In Brent’s flood scenarios, four examine the effects of water flowing into Natomas. Though South Natomas levees have been upgraded in recent years, achieving 100-year flood protection for the area, officials warn that levee failures are always a possibility. Because South Natomas is a shallow spot in the large Natomas basin, the water is always shown, in the planning maps, spilling toward the same shallow areas very near the river.
Depending on the exact location of the break, the intersection of San Juan Road and Truxel Road could be inundated within 30 minutes. Other areas south of Highway 80 could be under a foot of water within two hours, stranding vehicles and pushing water into people’s homes. Within three hours, even sections of El Camino could be under a foot of water. Within eight hours, the approach to Highway 80 from the north and the south could be inaccessible.
This could be disastrous for Natomas’ most vulnerable residents.
From the news out of New Orleans, we know that certain populations found it hard to evacuate; those who were elderly, very ill or without transportation were the last to get out.
The North Sacramento Mobile Home Park, a small, cheery community just to the east of the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, houses people who would fit these descriptions.
Its 143 spots, available to people 55 or older, are managed by Paulette Lord, a woman whose name suits her well. Elegant in a white suit and coiffed gray hair, Lord sat behind her desk and explained that her community is prepared to work as a team in a flood.
“I’ve designated residents to help those without a car,” Lord said with an air of confidence. “Otherwise, we’d be like New Orleans. … We live in a little bowl right here. Every resident here is concerned.”
Gerard Kelley, a tall, good-natured resident who crafts wood boxes, said that, actually, he was not too concerned about the levee right behind the park, because he’s seen crews doing a lot of work on them in the last few years. “I can’t picture it washing out,” he said, “but people might get water in their living rooms.”
Residents say they only have one route out of the park, and that’s Del Paso Boulevard. Kelley did wonder aloud how everyone could get out during an evacuation. “I can’t even get out of town on a Friday night,” he joked.
Lord would like to have emergency professionals come speak to her community and explain how residents would be evacuated if they needed help. She wonders why such plans aren’t written down and shared with her, maybe by e-mail.
Though Lord obviously was concerned, she hadn’t attended any of the public meetings, nor had any of the residents who had drifted into her office to listen to the conversation. “I’ve got a lot of elderly people,” said Lord. “They can’t drive to meetings.”
While Kelley argued that the levees had been reinforced with deeper slurry walls that would stop the water from burrowing underneath, Lord said she wasn’t convinced that they were strong enough, or that officials had a detailed plan to protect populations like hers.
“We know we can’t depend on anyone but ourselves,” she said.
In interviews, Colivas tried to offer what specifics were available. Residents probably would be moved to shelters on high ground where they could access a lot of services. He mentioned McClellan Park specifically.
Around the city, said Colivas, a number of facilities for the “medically fragile” had been identified and contacted with evacuation information, but he doubted that the trailer park was among them.
“These are the things we probably need to get better at,” he said. “We’re doing some things the right way, but there are some things we need to drill down on. … We should meet with administrators at facilities.”
Both Hopwood and Peggy Forseth-Andrews of the Sacramento County Adult & Aging Commission said they worried specifically about people living in small care facilities. Hopwood could identify the county’s “in home supportive services” clients, she said, but privacy laws kept her from locating other care homes in the county.
Forseth-Andrews remembered the floods of the winter of 1996 and 1997 and mentioned that some elderly people living in the region’s most rural areas may not know their neighbors. “In Wilton,” she said, “there were people caught in their homes who could not evacuate.”
She fears the same could happen again. “The water comes so fast,” said Forseth-Andrews. “At my age, I stand a chance to get out. I can’t say the same for my mother.”
Hopwood recently had come to speak to the commission, but because she could not offer specifics for all elderly populations, Hopwood’s presentation did not allay Forseth-Andrews’ fears.
“For us,” said Forseth-Andrews, “there were a lot of questions left unanswered.”
Hopwood also gave a recent presentation to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, where she explained that “most people would like us to tell them specifics of the plans for their areas … but each emergency is unique.”
When board members asked her what would happen to people in the poorest neighborhoods, or those without cars, Hopwood said that most people could walk three miles, which would be enough to find services and high ground. “And some people may not survive,” she admitted.
Though advocates for the elderly are worried, Forseth-Andrews said she’s not as concerned about nursing homes, because they’re licensed by the state and obligated to have up-to-date disaster-preparedness plans.
Jocelyn Montgomery, disaster-preparedness coordinator for the California Department of Health Services Licensing and Certification, said that her agency is responsible for nursing homes as well as care facilities for the developmentally disabled. In order to receive a license, a facility has to show the department that it can get people out of the building and to a facility with similar resources, said Montgomery. She tells administrators to talk to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or to school districts about using their buses for transportation. Also, she recommends that agencies form informal agreements with similar facilities on high ground so that evacuated residents can receive appropriate care once evacuated.
Though Montgomery’s agency works with licensed facilities on updating their disaster plans for regional hazards, including flooding in Sacramento, she also worries about smaller facilities for the elderly that don’t come under the same licensing standards.
In 1997, said Montgomery, many people were evacuated from Marysville facilities and ended up sleeping on cots at Beale Air Force Base. Some came without their medical records or without their medication, said Montgomery, and Beale was not equipped to care for them.
“It was not an ideal situation,” she added.
Hopwood also remembered that flood. She said that small care facilities need to realize that when they evacuate, they have to take their residents with them, and they have to stay with their residents at shelters.
“People from these little homes come and dump people, and they leave,” Hopwood said.
Caught in the safety net
To understand what disaster plans in nursing homes were like, SN&R contacted Eskaton, a large company that manages 11 care facilities in the Sacramento area. At Eskaton Natomas Manor, which manages apartments for seniors, the director would not answer questions, except to say that her facility was in the process of finalizing flood plans and would protect its residents.
Heather Craig, director of another Eskaton facility, didn’t mind talking about her flood plans. Craig said that the organization reviews its emergency plans annually and runs periodic drills. “Of course, Katrina has heightened everyone’s awareness,” she said. Craig manages Eskaton Care Center Greenhaven, a skilled nursing facility in another area of concern, the Pocket neighborhood.
Like Natomas, the Pocket lies low. In recent years, its levees have shown signs of erosion.
Asked how she would evacuate her population with little or no warning of an impending flood, Craig said her facility doesn’t keep any vans on site, but Eskaton’s assisted-living facilities do. The vans, stored on high ground, could be driven into the Pocket to pick up her clients and take them to the assisted-living facility in Carmichael, said Craig.
This assumes, of course, that the roads are clear. If not, well, the facility also keeps bottled water and three days worth of food on hand at all times—what Craig referred to as “minimal preparations.”
“We have portable oxygen,” she added. “We have the geri-chairs” (secure wheelchairs).
Were the Pocket area to be inundated due to a surprise levee failure, the situation would be dire. Under one of the city’s flood scenarios, Florin Road, one of the Pocket area’s main arteries, would be under a foot of water within one hour.
Part of the facility’s plan, said Craig, is to determine who can get out first in an emergency. Those who are ambulatory would be the first to evacuate, followed by those in wheelchairs and finally by those who were bedridden and would take the most preparation to move.
In response to the news from New Orleans, the facility has been running drills, evacuating whole wings of the facility.
“Staff has asked for more drills,” said Craig.
Eskaton is a large company—Craig’s facility houses 138 people when full. Smaller facilities may not receive the same kind of regulatory guidance.
For instance, a woman who answered the phone for a six-bed facility in South Natomas said that as the caregiver on site, she wasn’t familiar with the evacuation plans. The owner of the facility would know what was in place, she said, but he didn’t live on site and wasn’t available. He also didn’t return SN&R’s call for comment.
The element of surprise
The elderly are not the only ones vulnerable in a flood, and Natomas and the Pocket are not Sacramento’s only low spots.
Were a break to occur on the southern bank of the American River, water could rise to 1 foot in the Richards Boulevard area within a matter of minutes. The western portions of J and K streets might remain above the flood since they were raised 10 feet in the gold-rush era to avoid such disasters, but just north and south of Broadway, at the southern end of the downtown grid, the water eventually could rise as high as 15 feet—though it could take days.
Though the city’s scenarios consider individual breaks, there’s also the possibility that multiple breaks could occur at once, stressing transportation options and leaving some populations vulnerable—kids, for instance.
Alethea B. Smythe Elementary School sits on Northgate Boulevard in South Natomas. Northgate appears, according to the city’s maps, to rise higher than other roads in the area. Were a break to occur on the nearest levee, it might take four days for Northgate to become impassible. Water would first run downhill to inundate Truxel Road.
Alethea B. Smythe Principal Kirk Fujikawa, a man who appears in the school’s Halloween photos dressed as a smiling Mr. Incredible, said that if a flood were to occur during school hours, he’s ready. As a joke, he pointed irreverently to a bag of rubber duckies that he keeps in his office.
Though Fujikawa and his staff were inclined to take the question of flood preparation with a light heart, a serious conversation between Fujikawa and staff broke out in his office.
The school secretary, Michelle Tallman, had never thought about the risk to the school. She said she wouldn’t even buy a house in Natomas because she remembers when the area was flooded all the time for agriculture, and yet she hadn’t considered the risk to South Natomas.
“What would you do?” she asked Fujikawa, her eyes wide.
The principal said he really had no idea.
The school has prepared disaster plans, Fujikawa said, and practiced evacuations, but they weren’t flood-related. The school knew how to move students off site but had not practiced getting them to high ground. He normally would take students to nearby schools, but they’re in low-lying areas, too.
Clerk Deana Keck said the district does have the ability to send a call out to parents to have them come retrieve their children, but that assumes that there’s time before evacuation routes close. While Northgate was still passable, neighborhood streets might not be. Families could be separated.
The district has buses available, the administrators agreed, but if the waters were to threaten numerous schools at once, they wondered if there would be enough.
The waiting game
The North Sacramento School District encompasses portions of South Natomas, along with Alethea B. Smythe Elementary School. Doug Marquand, the district’s chief of business and operations, said that the emergency plans for the district are being updated all the time. He assumes that if some large countywide event like a major flood did occur, the response would be dictated by a higher authority, the county or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If a flood were endangering only one school, Marquand said, he thought the district could manage it.
“We’d do the best that we can do. We’d take our bus fleet and staff and evacuate as quickly as possible,” he said. Also, he said, other districts in the area were in agreement that if North Sacramento needed more buses, the others would provide them. “And if another district had a problem, we’d help,” he added.
In a more dire scenario, with numerous schools and districts at risk, Marquand admitted, “it could be quite catastrophic.” With 4,900 students in his district, Marquand wasn’t sure there’d be enough buses in the system to be everywhere at once. He does know that those buses would not be stored in low-lying areas where they’d be stranded once the waters started to rise—as in New Orleans.
It was reported at the time of Hurricane Katrina that bus drivers refused to drive into flooded areas. Would bus drivers here also refuse? Marquand wasn’t sure. “I wouldn’t want to endanger my staff,” he said. His drivers and teachers are very committed, he said, but he couldn’t force them to risk their lives for others.
Marquand said that he’d received no calls from concerned parents but that the district’s staff was talking about how to troubleshoot in the event of an emergency.
“Our conclusion: Follow the direction of the higher authority,” said Marquand.
Though Fujikawa wasn’t worrying about an impending flood, one gathering place for children nearby was.
Saundra Allen is the director of Childtime, a child-care facility that is considering buying two inflatable rafts per classroom—14 to 16 boats total for 148 children. Allen had discussed the purchase with her corporate office, she said, but hadn’t heard back yet. In the meantime, one of the facility’s parents, who was familiar with flood planning, was starting to consider fund-raisers to pay for the rafts.
The site also is preparing to approach a two-story business behind it to see if the children could find shelter there.
Usually, when we’re talking about kids, said Allen, people are happy to oblige.
The idea of a child-care facility equipped with flotation devices may seem radical, but in discussions with Lord at the mobile-home park, and Keck at the elementary school, boats were talked about casually, as a normal part of life on the river. Even Lord’s residents keep fishing boats. Kelley mentioned that half a dozen of them were stored in a shed on the property.
So, are we ready?
Wondering if people in authority all over Sacramento were planning for disaster, SN&R visited a number of apartment managers in South Natomas as well. The managers had not attended the public meetings about flood risk in their area, and none of them had devised any specific plan for the evacuation of their residents.
Homeowners associations were similarly unprepared. Though some homeowners had attended meetings on their own, of the few associations we contacted, none of them had held a meeting for their neighborhoods or sent out any information on how to evacuate or prepare for a flood.
The variety of responses was surprising, since so much has been made of Sacramento’s fragile position at the confluence of two powerful rivers. Both the media and government agencies have kept the issue at the forefront since the beginning of hurricane season, but only time will tell if the region’s most vulnerable will benefit from the advance planning of people like Brent, Colivas and Hopwood.
If these professionals had their way, everyone would be asking themselves now: What would I do if a worst-case scenario occurred?
What to do
If you didn’t attend the city’s public forums on flood preparedness, check out their recommendations:
• Buy discounted “preferred risk” flood insurance for your home if you’re eligible.
• Stockpile enough food and water to support your family and your pets for three days in case you get stranded.
• Know your neighbors and whether they might need your help.
• If you have to evacuate, take your pets—and, if necessary, your neighbors—with you.
• If you have family members or neighbors who don’t drive, link them up with people who can include them in evacuation plans.
• Recognize that cell phones may not function in an emergency; the lines may be overloaded, your phone’s battery may die, or service may not be available.
• Designate someone out of town as a contact person for you and your family should you be separated.
• Have a meet-up destination on high ground and make sure every family member knows where it is.