I’m in a love-hate relationship with a creek.
Three blocks from my home, San Francisquito Creek is almost always a docile rivulet, offering lush tranquillity in the center of bustling Silicon Valley. Then the rains start, the creek’s muddy waters rise, and I envision a Katrina-esque escape to my roof, begging for help with my white Williams-Sonoma dish towel.
Luckily, there’s something we can all do to prepare for the deluge. We can learn how to sandbag like the pros. We can make sure our home’s drainage system is working. We can protect our precious photos and documents.
That’s why I turned to Jon Hospitalier, assistant public works director for the city of Palo Alto, a place that needed to evacuate residents by boat during the last big El Niño in the winter of 1997-1998.
Jon Hospitalier, Palo Alto assistant director of public works, demonstrates the use of plywood, polyethylene plastic sheeting and sandbags to protect a patio door from flooding at a home in Palo Alto, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. The arrival of El Niño storms has motivated local residents to learn ways to protect their homes. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group) ( Gary Reyes )
“The biggest problem we see is lack of preparation,” he said, strolling past my vulnerable doors, vents, crawl space and downspouts. “Don’t call us in the middle of a storm, asking, ‘Where do I get sandbags?’ ”
I take solace in the fact that I’m not alone. We Bay Area residents are a water-loving people, living in homes built along creeks, rivers, the ocean and bays. If the storms don’t get us, the king tides might.
But it’s time to get ready. Here’s his advice for protecting my property — and yours — from flooding:
Before floods come
- Identify your risk.
- Dangerously fast-moving floodwaters can flow thousands of feet away from the creek within minutes. While some areas experience transient flooding, others stay submerged for days. There’s a big difference in cost and control strategies.
- How deep might waters get where you live? Look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps at http://msc.fema.gov. They identify your home’s specific risk of flooding from rivers, storm tides and other hazards.
- Seal cracks in your home’s foundation, exterior walls and small openings around pipes.
- Get sandbags.
Jon Hospitalier, Palo Alto assistant director of public works, demonstrates proper sandbagging techniques using plywood, polyethylene plastic sheeting, tape and sandbags at a home in Palo Alto, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. The arrival of El Niño storms has motivated local residents to learn ways to protect their homes. (Gary Reyes/Bay Area News Group) ( Gary Reyes )
- Sandbag stations are managed by Santa Clara Valley Water District, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and many cities’ public works departments. (East Bay Municipal Utility District, which has no stormwater jurisdiction, does not.) Bring proof of address. Sandbags also are sold at many local hardware, garden supply and home improvement stores.
- I brought a friend to help load up. When sand isn’t readily available, bags can be filled with dirt or fine gravel. Only fill them half full; overfilling makes them difficult to manage.
- Keep them dry — store them in your garage or wrap them in a tarp. Mine, already soaked and heavy, have begun sprouting weeds.
- Get plywood, duct tape and plastic sheeting such as Visqueen, a brand of durable polyethylene plastic. Cut the plywood to cover whatever needs protecting — a vent, window wells, the lower part of a sliding-glass door, or crawl space under the foundation.
- Lay the plastic on the ground and up or over the wood, with enough extra to wrap around the sandbags.
- Stack sandbags up against the wood, pressed tightly against the opening for support. Stomp them into place. Layer them like bricks, so they’re staggered. The base should be 1.5 times wider than the height.
- Wrap the plastic around the sandbags, like a burrito. Tape it into place.
- Sandbags may also be used to direct the flow of water along the street.
- Keep rain gutters and drainage channels free of debris.
- Disperse water runoff from gutters.
- “No offense, but … not good,” said Hospitalier, eyeing my downspouts. He much preferred my neighbor’s setup, which dumps roof water into a buried “French drain” — a trench filled with gravel or rock or containing a perforated pipe that redirects water away from the house.
- Note to self: Buy rigid plastic “downspout extenders” — maybe 6 to 10 feet long — to carry water away. Less unsightly are plastic “extension coils,” which roll open when water comes down the downspout.
- Buy flood insurance if you need it. Basic homeowners insurance does not cover losses from flooding. Federal law requires flood insurance if you have a federally regulated mortgage and your building is in a flood zone. So if you’re a homeowner, your mortgage company has already told you whether you need flood insurance. Owners can insure a home for up to $250,000 and its contents for up to $100,000. Renters can cover their belongings for up to $100,000.
- Know the name, location and phone number of your agent.
During the floods
- Stay informed. Tune your radio to 740 AM, 90.1 FM and 106.9 FM for emergency information.
- Register for emergency alerts via email and text:
Santa Clara County: www.sccgov.org/sites/alertscc/Pages/home.aspx
San Mateo County: www.smcalert.info
Alameda County: www.acgov.org/emergencysite
Contra Costa County: www.cococws.us
Santa Cruz County: www.scr911.org
- Elevate your belongings. Make sure to place electronics, important paperwork, valuable items and any pesticides, cleaners or other chemicals on shelves — or relocate them to a higher floor.
- If you are asked to leave your property, disconnect all electrical appliances. Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves. Water can snuff out a pilot light, causing your home to fill with dangerous natural gas. Do not touch electrical equipment if you are wet or standing in water.
- Implement your emergency backup plan. Load key items into your car, and perhaps park your car outside the flooding area. Identify safe routes to high ground and a place where your family can meet and sleep.
- Keep a portable battery-powered radio handy, along with flashlight and emergency food and water supply.
For me, I’m reconciled to taking these important — and, if I’m lucky, unneeded — precautions.
There’s peace of mind. I can once again relax to the drumbeat of rain. I visit the creek without resentment, walking along its banks as the afternoon light reflects in its waters.
San Francisquito Creek feels less threatening, and I’m in love again.