City of Woodlake braces for more water as residents demand answers

March 21, 2023
Jesse Vad
by Jesse Vad
Josh Diaz holds bags of soggy insulation to show Woodlake city officials the flood damage his home suffered during a meeting in March 2023. Jesse Vad / SJV Water
Jesse Vad
Jesse Vad

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Woodlake government officials got an earful Monday night as residents expressed outrage, frustration and fear over what they see as a paralyzed city response to devastating flooding.  

The City of Woodlake held a public meeting to update residents on flood impacts and extend a local state of emergency in anticipation of yet more incoming storms. The city council chambers were packed with more than 50 community members. The panel of city staff included Woodlake’s five council members including the mayor and vice mayor, chief of police, city administrator and the city attorney.

Woodlake City Administrator Ramon Lara, Police Chief Mike Marquez and Vice Mayor Frances Ortiz listen to residents frustrated by what they feel was a bungled response to the recent flood. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

City staff presented explanations of ongoing preparation and emergency storm response. And they tried to address concerns that a new housing development may have made flooding worse. 

Their information was met with a wall of frustration as residents questioned their competency. 

“Are we safe…”?

“Are we safe after this rainy season? Should we build again?” asked Joshua Diaz, a local teacher whose home flooded twice since March 10, taking on more than three feet of water. “I can’t do this again and again and again, trying to fix my home with my own funds.” 

Like many residents at the meeting, Diaz doesn’t have flood insurance and said it would cost him $20,000 just for the pre-demolition on his home. 

Woodlake, a small city in Tulare County near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, has been one of the hardest hit communities after the region’s two main reservoirs “filled and spilled” from the latest string of atmospheric rivers that slammed the state starting March 10.

Entire neighborhoods were inundated by flood water which gushed into homes, destroyed cars and clogged storm drains. So far, 38 homes have been reported damaged from the storms in Woodlake, a city of 7,500.

Now, city staff and residents are bracing for more as this season’s 12th atmospheric river hammers the state. It’s not only the rain that is a concern, but snowmelt from extraordinary snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Southern Sierra snowpack is at 277% of normal for this time of year. 

The snowpack, “continues to create major issues for us,” said Ramon Lara, Woodlake’s city administrator, at the meeting. 

New housing development questioned

One of the biggest concerns among community members is a new development, called Hillside Estates, which sits on the northern edge of Woodlake behind one of the worst flooded neighborhoods. Residents allege the development was not constructed properly and that what was previously a floodplain, was paved over for the new homes and is causing flood water to flow down into older neighborhoods.

Monique Mello, Woodlake’s engineer, said the area did not previously have a defined creek. The land was formerly an orchard and about seven acres of the 30 acre plot was a low area. It would have been able to take about a foot and a half of water, she said. 

Her models suggest the problem was just too much water coming too fast.

Even without the development, it would have only taken six minutes for the area to flood completely, she said.  

“Unfortunately with all this rainwater, with all this snowmelt, it’s just really impacting everywhere even within the city and on the outskirts as well,” said Mello. “The development based on the models ran did not change the floodplain area.”

Broken trust

Community members didn’t buy it.

Joshua Diaz, in the ball cap, and his wife attend a town meeting in Woodlake Monday night. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

“We know who the problem is,” said Diaz during his public comments. “What the development did is not working. There needs to be a change. If you can please tell us there will be a change so we can rebuild and feel safe because quite honestly, I don’t believe we’re safe.” 

Woodlake isn’t overseen by a flood control district so the city government has to take on that role, said Denise England, grants and resources manager for Tulare County. 

The county is under centralized command since state resources were activated last week meaning CalFire is in charge of responding to the flood for Tulare County, said England. Teams are assessing and repairing damage, providing temporary shelter and analyzing where to move and put water, she added. 

Residents of Woodlake, however, said they don’t feel supported. 

Irreparable damage

People took to the microphone Monday night, some overwhelmed by emotion, and recounted their loss and trauma. Many who spoke don’t have flood insurance and the cost of repairs is out of reach with one resident reporting roughly $100,000 in damages to her home. 

The goal to address financial aid for residents is to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) involved, said city administrator Lara. City staff urged community members to fill out forms provided by the county’s office of emergency services which will help to reach a threshold needed to activate FEMA support. The forms can be found online in English and Spanish

If activated, there would be federal funding for public uses, such as city and government needs, and private uses, which would help to pay for damages to homes, said Lara. 

“All the cities are pushing hard for the private because, probably never has the private side been hit so hard and that’s what we’re dealing with here,” said Lara. “They’re [residents] worried about the private side and the loss. And they’re right, it’s huge for some of these people.” 

Marianna Cooper has lived in her house on the northwest side of Woodlake her whole life. Her home was flooded with half a foot of water. She’ll have to gut the whole house to repair it. 

The city’s explanations didn’t reassure Cooper. 

“I don’t even know if it’s even going to be worth it to build anything,” said Cooper. “What am I building for if it’s just not gonna be protected?” 

The floodwater is contaminated and has already caused her family health problems. Cooper’s niece came to the house to help pull the carpet out and some of the water splashed on her eye. Now her eye is swollen and infected, said Cooper. 

Cooper’s home is uninhabitable and the displacement has splintered her family. She and her husband are renting one room in someone else’s house. And her 14-year-old son has to stay with someone else. 

“He’s going through trauma,” said Cooper, her eyes welled up with tears. “The damage is done. There’s no Band-Aid big enough to cover up this damage.”   

Jesse Vad

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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