The evacuation order in Allensworth was downgraded to a warning on Monday as flooding and breaches don’t pose an immediate threat to the community for the time being, said Carrie Monteiro, public information officer for the Tulare County Emergency Operations Center.
But the warning in place means there is still a potential threat and residents should be ready to leave, she added.
The historic Black town of Allensworth sits on what was the southeastern edge of the old Tulare Lake bed, which was drained for farming more than 100 years ago.
But the onslaught of storms starting in December has brought so much water, parts of the old lake are refilling. And new areas where land has collapsed from overpumping groundwater during the drought are also being flooded.
All that water has closed off roads, isolating rural communities like Allensworth, and has threatened to overrun towns.
A massive effort to keep water in streams and canals has brought personnel from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire,) the state Department of Water Resources (DWR,) the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to work alongside local responders, said Monteiro.
Workers have dropped giant sandbags by helicopter, rebuilt levees and constructed sandbag walls, she added.
But the struggle isn’t over for Allensworth which is still surrounded by encroaching floodwater.
A boil water notice was issued on March 22 because a power outage caused the town’s wells to shut down temporarily which could have introduced bacteria into the system. Bacteriological sampling could take two weeks, according to a notice from the Allensworth Community Services District posted on the Tulare County Sheriff’s Facebook page.
And water from the White River continues to make its way toward town.
Some state officials finally took notice of Allensworth’s plight. On March 24, Karla Nemeth, the director of DWR, met with community leaders in Allensworth.
“We really, really appreciate her coming out because this is probably the most senior person that has been out to visit with us since,” said Kayode Kadara, community leader in Allensworth. “It’s not an immediate solution but at least somebody is now saying, ‘hey, we need to work on something here.’”
After seeing where the White River is coming into town under a culvert owned by the Burlington, Northern, Sante Fe Railroad, Nemeth told residents she would meet with her engineers and see if there was something that could be done quickly, said Kadara.
“The main issues are just overall ingress and egress. And then I think, some better coordination that needs to happen with the railroad,” said Nemeth. “It’s not uncommon that when things get out to the ground, on the local level, communication between an entity like a railroad that obviously has very significant authorities over right of way and certain important things of national interest, that communication kind of breaks down.”
Kadara had a phone call on Thursday with Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources Secretary, to discuss the issue. Kadara sent him photos of the White River water and the problem area at hand. Crowfoot’s staff are going to do their best to engage the railroad right away, said Kadara.
During Nemeth’s visit, she also let community leaders know what DWR is doing to prepare for a historic snowmelt. DWR wants counties in the south San Joaquin Valley to establish a regional plan, she said.
The string of 13 atmospheric rivers that pummeled the state have filled the Sierra Nevada mountains with historic levels of snow. The Southern Sierra is at 298% of normal snowpack for this time of year. While storms have subsided for the moment, when the snow starts to melt, it will likely cause severe flooding again.
“Right now it’s the calm before the bigger storm,” said Dezaraye Bagalayos, director of program coordination at nonprofit Allensworth Progressive Association. Even though the evacuation order has been downgraded, work hasn’t stopped to prepare for more flooding in Allensworth.
The town’s community center has become an emergency command post and donations of much needed supplies continue to come in from Red Cross and local organizations, said Bagalayos.
“This is maybe the end of the beginning,” said Bagalayos. “But it’s just the beginning of even bigger things ahead of us.”