The Great 100-Year Flood
When I looked out the front door, I saw a hip-deep lake where my yard had been ...
It was February 1998, and all I wanted was an uneventful year. Two years before I had bought my ex-husband out of a fixer-upper house in an “improving” neighborhood in Menlo Park, California. There actually were still neighborhoods that were improving–this was next to a run-down section of East Palo Alto, which was scheduled to be bulldozed. I was taking a risk, but felt it was worth the opportunity to have property on my own. The 50-year-old house had potential, but I was barely keeping it together, because it took nearly all my assets to get it in the first place. I slept on a futon and borrowed a sofa from a girlfriend’s garage. My “ace”? The house came with almost a third of an acre of land, huge by Bay Area standards.
If the property were across the San Francisquito Creek, which separates Menlo Park from Palo Alto, it would have been worth three times as much. The house was just a block away from this beautiful, wild creek, with its thick trees and thriving wildlife. Families of raccoons visited my back deck and never touched the trash. They lived near the creek and gorged on its fish and other delicacies. Although Palo Alto’s other creeks had been lined with concrete for flood control, environmentalists had lobbied, and succeeded, in keeping this creek wild. About a block down from mine, the creek went under a quaint stone bridge.
Given the attention I paid to maintaining enough business to make ends meet, I hardly noticed the almost daily rain that had occurred over the past few months. January had been unusually wet, but it was an El Nino year for the west coast. The first week in February, I could hear a very loud rush from the creek. Some of us on the block took a stroll over and saw that the creek was completely full, nearly lapping onto the street. Courtney, my next door neighbor, thought it wasn’t worth worrying about. He’d been living there for more than 25 years and there never was a problem. “The last time the creek overflowed was in 1952,” he said.
That evening it rained again, hard. About 1:30 the next morning, I heard loud knocking and shouts at my front door. It was Courtney. “Marian, get up, get out! Take your car and move it up to George’s house up the street!” When I looked out the front door, I saw a hip-deep lake where my yard had been, and Courtney wading in the water. I scrambled into shoes and clothing, grabbed my cat Latte, put her in her carrier in the car, snatched her food, and opened the garage door.
As water raged toward me, I saw a group of men carrying a disabled neighbor, in his wheelchair, down the road. I struggled toward them, but they yelled that they didn’t need help. I looked down and saw, near my ankles in the water, little pods of fish circling around, right in the street. But, time to extricate my car. I prayed the engine wouldn’t stall as I inched along toward George’s, just a couple of houses down and across the street, where there was dry-ish land, and hobbled inside with the cat in hand.
What I realized or learned later:
Water is really, really powerful. I couldn’t believe how fast it was flowing. Turned out my street wasn’t flat, as it had appeared, but my side was imperceptibly lower than the other, so the water flooded just that side of the street, although it threatened the other. We found out that the final catalyst for the flood was a large tree, the size of a car, that fell into the creek and got stuck at the stone bridge, so the water cascaded into Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, and a few blocks of Menlo Park. I had no flood insurance, but we weren’t in a flood zone.
The Night of the Snakes and Rats
I’d known that George was an eccentric fellow, and his house had the funky vibe common to the neighborhood. As I entered the living room and dining room, a group of people stood in their underwear, waiting for an ancient clothes dryer, struggling with a heavy load, to give them dry clothes. Then I realized how wet I was and soon joined them. I went to thank George and noticed something circular and shiny around his neck–it was a small snake. That’s right, George collects snakes, I remembered. Some of the women in the group recalled this at the same time and promptly freaked out. They took refuge in a small side bedroom, and George said, “That’s the rat room, and you’re welcome to snooze in there.” Now, being an urban girl at heart, I detest rats, even pet ones, let alone those kept for snake food, and the last thing I wanted was my poor cat, uncharacteristically docile in her carrier, to be further stressed by rodents. I told George I’d be fine in the living room where most of the men were. We’d already seen each other in our underwear anyway.
So, I scoped out an armchair, placed the cat’s carrier at my feet, and slipped in a bit of food and water. But where exactly were the snakes housed? Right next to me on a table was a very large, bowl-like terrarium, and in it were two of the largest snakes I’d ever seen. George came up. “Meet Artemis and Baby, my two boa constrictors.” Artemis was the diameter of my thigh, at least, and I didn’t want to know how long she was. Baby wasn’t much smaller. “Well, folks,” said George, “I can let the pythons out if you like.” One beleaguered man across from me replied, “Don’t let the pythons out.” I was so glad I didn’t have to say it.
The Next Days
I must have dozed off for an hour when I heard a click and a light went on near my eyes. It was 7 AM. The terrarium was on a timer, with a warm light to wake up the snakes. Artemis raised her head and, in a reptilian yoga pose, opened her mouth wide enough to swallow Latte the cat in a single gulp. I stared at Artemis and growled, “You stay away from my cat.” Miraculously, Latte had not made a single sound since we’d left my house. One of the men was already up and putting on black wading boots. “I’m going to go down the block and check out the damage. Be back in about a half hour.” Damage … that’s when it hit me that the water would have flooded my house. Did it just destroy the floors? Did it go higher? Oh, man, how would I ever recover?
As disaster began to sink in, the man returned. He was scratching his head. “Can’t believe it, the water is gone. The house on the corner took a hit, and Courtney, you have a small problem out back. Marian, guess what, the water went to the top step of your porch and didn’t get in your house. You should be OK.” I blinked. “The water is gone? Oh, thank you, thank you! But how could it be gone?” I trudged home and my knees almost buckled with relief. Turns out the creek burst with such intensity that the water rushed through my front yard, went under the house, through the foundation area, went out the back yard, and headed out to San Francisco Bay, unfortunately inundating most of East Palo Alto on the way.
My front yard squished under my feet, completely saturated. The long driveway was covered with a layer of creek much about two feet thick, and it continued into the garage. But, my water heater, on a platform, was working. All sorts of debris had been washed from my neighbors’ front yards into my back yard. I got back into the house, and for the first time Latte gave a loud meow. My floors were dry. I had no heat–the water had blown out the gas pilots in my vintage floor furnaces, but I had electric power and phone service. Courtney, on the other hand, had heat but no hot water. His back addition, built a foot lower than the rest of the house, had flooded.
After a quick breakfast I got a shovel and decided to clean the driveway. Out of nowhere, a woman from up the block appeared with a shovel, and we got to work. I learned immediately how heavy mud was. Our progress was distressingly slow, until an hour later, a pickup truck pulled up, and two huge men came out with shovels so large I couldn’t lift them, and a wheelbarrow. Without a word, they began shoveling, and we noticed a sinkhole the size of a child’s bedroom had formed in Courtney’s yard. With his permission, we dumped the mud in it–two problems solved. To clean the remainder of the mud from the driveway, we needed, ironically, water, and hosed down the entire driveway and garage. The people who helped me vanished before I could offer them food and drink or really thank them. I realized eight hours had gone by, and took advantage of a hot shower before going to sleep in my cold but dry house.
The next day my task, besides putting mud boots by my front door, was to figure out if my gas furnaces were ruined. Could the pilots be relit? Could I even find someone to check? I called Mr. Otto, my former husband’s favorite plumber (one advantage of having married an architect), who had retired but told me who to call. “And be sure to ask for someone who’s over 40, who knows those furnaces,” he added. Later that afternoon the plumber arrived and removed the furnace grates in my living room and hallway. “Hmm, probably the water cracked the units, but it’s hard to tell. I can try to relight them. It’s about a 1 in 100 chance. He tried the one in the living room, reaching down with a special lighter tool. Foomp, fwoosh! The pilot lit. We went to the one in the hall. Foomp, fwoosh! That pilot lit. The plumber scratched his head. “Never would have believed it, but the water must have gone through so fast that it didn’t cause them to crack.” After thanks and bribes with cookies, I convinced the plumber to go next store and light the pilot on Courtney’s water heater.
What I realized or learned later:
Water that moves fast might do less damage,but mud weighs a ton. Sometimes you get lucky. Often people are wonderfully helpful in a crisis. I think women can do anything men can, but odds are the men are physically stronger, which really made a difference in my driveway shoveling.
The Next Months
The rain didn’t stop, and many issues remained in the neighborhood. I ran the furnaces for days to make sure the area underneath the floors really was dry. Sandbags were made available, but the system clearly was designed for men. You had to shovel the sand into 50-lb bags, and I couldn’t lift that much, so I ended up filling bags halfway and taking twice as many. By placing them on a hand cart, I could lug them around and line the front of the house for protection. I dug a trench in the yard to guide the water away from the crawlspace. (It was fun telling a client I was leaving early to go dig a trench!) The streets were blocked off for weeks. To get to my front door, you needed mud boots. Other than a select few friends, I told everyone else not to visit.
The rain continued on for months. It rained on my birthday, May 26, a first during my many years in California. The following spring, oak trees in our yards started failing, their roots rotted by too much moisture. One morning, I saw the enormous, 60-year-old oak in my back yard start to rotate like a swizzle stick and split in three, the parts covering my entire yard, the crown just gently touching the glass door leading to the patio. After I cried and had a drink to the tree’s life, the arborists came and sawed for eighteen hours, piling oak wood high in the side yard.
By 2000 the real estate market was especially good, and I was ready to live in a condo where there wouldn’t be outdoor issues, so I sold the house as is and did well. The new owners tore everything down except one wall, and I found what they built disappointing, but it was time to move on, and to remember the impact of watery weather on my Menlo Park home.
What I realized or learned later:
Palo Alto and the entire area developed a flood plan and new methods of warning people of impending floods. San Francisquito Creek has been tamed, with concrete lining, I believe, and I don’t think the environmentalists object. Having been in one great flood and one major earthquake, I’d opt to go through an earthquake. While not predictable, they are over fast, and recovering from them seems faster. Water, and moisture, linger.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.
Wow, Marian, what an amazing story! Thank you for taking the time to give us all that detail, so that we could really understand the enormity of the flood. Of course it would happen after you had bought your ex-husband out, rather than earlier when you could have shared the burdens. Kudos to you for handling it so well. And I love all of your “what I realized or learned later” comments, they are profound! I agree about earthquakes being preferable to floods, although of course ideally one would have neither.
Yes, Suzy, and you can add wildfires to the list of events we can do without. While it was challenging without my ex-husband there, going through this did build my resilience and confidence, so there was a bright side.
What a story, Marian. These are episodes one sees on the nightly news, not things that happens to friends. Glad you survived and got out. 100 year storms are happening with much-too-often frequency now. You wrote about this with a vivid precision, I can see that boa constrictor eyeing your poor cat.
Thanks, Betsy. It was an experience! In California we tend to think of fires and earthquakes (both of which I’ve experienced), but because this flood was so unexpected, the memories are vivid. You are so right about the frequency of these storms!
What an ordeal, Marian. Your story is filled with many harrowing details that make it really compelling. And the snake-filled home that was your refuge — oh my! To go through this experience on your own must have been so frightening and challenging. You are quite a survivor. Living near Lake Michigan, I have a healthy respect for the power of water.
Thanks Laurie, it was an experience but I got through it. Rather made me appreciate the condo I then bought, though.
Thanks, Marian. As is often the case, memorable experiences cram the absurd into close company with the miserable, the ridiculous, and the transcendent. Are you sure this event didn’t take place in Egypt a few millennia earlier? A powerful takeaway: how long and difficult it is to recover from such calamities. And sadly, this harbinger of climate change now carries a universality for us all. Thanks!
Yes, somewhat reminiscent of a Nile flood, but thank goodness no asps. Seriously, I shudder to think how much worse this experience would be if it happened today.