Lessons learned in '95 help residents, officials.
Thursday, February 5, 1998
When the siren at the Carmel Valley Village fire station gave three sharp blasts at 1pm Monday afternoon, residents knew what to do. They tuned in right away to 830AM, a low-power radio station the fire department set up six months ago as an emergency alert system.
"We told them there was a flood warning on for the Carmel River, and we told them where to go if we called for evacuation," says Carmel Valley fire captain Jeff Trapp.
That evacuation call came at 2:30am Tuesday morning, when another three sharp blasts of the fire siren told folks to tune in again to the fire department''s radio station. Some locals went to a shelter set up at the Carmel Valley Village community center, but the shelter only operated for a few hours.
"People have been through this before two years ago, and most of them have friends or a hotel to go to," Trapp says.
"Been through it before" was the key to this week''s response to the heavy rains, flooding, power outages, road closings, and emergency evacuations taking place from Big Sur to North County.
When heavy rains caused a similar flood situation in March 1995, the county was caught pretty much with its pants down. Since then, county, city and private organizations that deal with emergencies have come together in a concerted effort at coordination that seems to have paid off.
"We''re much better prepared this year," says Rudy Asunsolo, the county''s affirmative action officer who worked this week at the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services (OES). After the floods of ''95, the OES started training county workers in a one-week simulated emergency training program. "There was better coordination between our office and the other emergency organizations like PG&E, the sheriff''s department, CHP, the Red Cross, and OESs in other counties. We had notes for voluntary and mandatory evacuation typed up by 7pm Monday, in English and Spanish, for the Pajaro area and surrounding regions, and we evacuated the low-lying areas of the Carmel River."
This time around, folks took the warnings seriously. In ''95, Trapp recalls, the Carmel Valley Fire Department knocked on residents'' doors to tell them to evacuate, and were met with disbelief. "They tended to think it wouldn''t happen," he says. "This time, when we told people to get out, they left!"
Robin Krebs lives at Camp Stefani along the Carmel River above Rosie''s Bridge in Carmel Valley Village. A recent homeowner, she and her husband, a Monterey County Sheriff''s Deputy, just bought their house in October. The fire department drove by her street after 11pm with an optional evacuation notice, says Krebs.
"We decided to leave because the water was flowing like Niagara Falls down the back of our road and we were afraid the road might give."
Krebs says the Carmel River was about a foot below its bank on the north side when she evacuated. By 8:30am the river was over the bank and the water was right up to the adobe wall that surrounds the Krebs'' home. Although there was no flooding to her home, neighbors living across the street right along the river were flooded.
"We did anticipate this and were prepared," says Krebs. "We had people stopping by all day with sandbags. It seemed as if everyone was more prepared but it is still hard to deal with all of this."
Eileen Copsey lives on Brookdale Drive near Quail Lodge about 150 yards from the Carmel River.
"We were awakened about 2:30am [Tuesday morning] by an ambulance announcing a mandatory evacuation. We had 15 minutes to evacuate and just took clothing."
Copsey lived through the last flood, when the river rose right up to her front doorstep. She didn''t experience flooding this time, but she knew what to expect. "We could anticipate things better and were better prepared," says Copsey. "We knew what to take and what to put up."
The Red Cross was also better prepared this time around. Last weekend, before the flooding started, their Monterey chapter received two, fully stocked 40-foot disaster supply trailers, each one equipped to open a 1,000-person emergency shelter. By Tuesday morning, both those shelters were in operation. Shelters in Carmel, Salinas and Seaside were also set up for an influx of residents stranded in water-logged homes.
In North County, the local chapter of the Red Cross worked with the Santa Cruz chapter and health and social service agencies from both counties to set up the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds in Watsonville for emergency shelter for residents of the Pajaro Valley.
The space came in useful as a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the region on Tuesday morning, sending families to small scale shelters set up throughout Watsonville. Emergency workers expected the numbers could reach into the thousands. "One of the reasons we were looking at the [Santa Cruz] Fairgrounds is that it could house a huge amount of people," says Monterey Red Cross Executive Director Paula Herrera.
"I''d only been in Monterey County five weeks when the floods hit in ''95. Now I know the river runs north, for example."
There''s a "wonderful esprit" between the various groups that deal with emergencies in Monterey County, Herrera says, and much closer cooperation. "[The floods of] ''95 made us realize that Mother Nature can throw us quite a curveball, and we need to be ready," she says.
Randy Taylor, public information officer for the city of Monterey, says that well before the current round of rains began, all local fire departments started setting out sandbags for residents to haul away and use to protect their homes. "They''ve been available for eight weeks now," Taylor says. Although the city declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, officials were saying they felt much better prepared than did two years ago. Few trees were down, and there were even fewer stoppages which can block storm drains. "There were aggressive repair programs instituted over the past two years," says Krista Lemos, community education and outreach coordinator for the city.
Trapp says the Carmel Valley fire department went through 8,000 sandbags by Monday. The Mid-Valley fire department used a similar number.
"In ''95, once the floods had already hit we were out trying to get sandbags," he says. "It was a little late."
"We''ve learned from our mistakes," says Taylor.
The tiny village of Pajaro, along the northern edge of the county, certainly learned about preparedness two years ago. When the Pajaro River flooded in ''95, some 3,300 residents were forced from their homes without a moment to spare while the river surged over its banks. Many of them lost everything.
It didn''t take long for residents to figure an offensive strategy was their best bet for future, and inevitable, tempests of Mother Nature. The Pajaro Citizens Levee Advisory Council was formed in late 1995, months after their community was decimated by water, to discuss ways to shore up the river. "They were asking ''What are we going to do to prevent ''95 from happening again?''" says Hiram Houck of the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
With nearly nine miles of levee to be contained, and only $45,000 a year in assessments coming in to fund maintenance, the council quickly decided that the creation of another flood zone, along the high ground of the community, was necessary. By vote, the second zone was created in 1996, resulting in $250,000-300,000 in assessments dedicated to the levee.
An immediate priority was to raise the levee between one and three feet on both the Santa Cruz and Monterey county sides of the river-a project which was finally completed just a few months ago. As the water climbed up to two feet higher than its 32-foot flood point on Tuesday, there was cautious relief that the higher levees were doing the job, containing the river up to six feet below the cresting point.
The council also initiated measures over the past two years to control rodents which borrowed into the levees and weaken the structure, and clear debris and trees which can accumulate in the river.
"Monitoring the river is the main issue," says Bob McElroy, public information officer for Monterey County Emergency Services. "The levee is at a better condition, and we''re getting more runoff on the Pajaro at this time."
"Because the levee was raised (to provide greater capacity of the river channel), and because we cleaned out the river, maybe the water is flowing better than it''s used to," adds Houck.
Additional reporting by Richard Pitnick.