Residents of Woodlake in Tulare County, traumatized by the devastation of last year’s floods, watched in fear last week as storms dumped water on their town, flooding streets.
When his street flooded last week, Joshua Diaz got word while he was at work teaching at Porterville High School.
He rushed home to blockade his house with sandbags. Even though the water didn’t reach that far, the experience was too close for comfort.
“I honestly thought it was going to be a repeat of last year,” said Diaz.
Last year’s historic winter overwhelmed local infrastructure throughout the valley, causing widespread flooding, ruining homes and businesses in many small towns, including Woodlake. Diaz is part of a lawsuit with 250 other homeowners who allege local agencies should have done more to prevent the damage.
Diaz’s house was inundated last year, destroying much of the structure and his family’s belongings. He spent about $45,000 rebuilding the house. He and his wife and two children were finally able to move back in in August.
But his wife and kids aren’t at the house now. They’re staying with his wife’s parents for the winter months because they don’t want to risk going through another traumatic flood. Diaz stayed behind to protect their home and try to salvage belongings if another flood does come.
The house is furnished with the bare minimums. Many of the family’s important belongings are stored at Diaz’s parents’ house and his wife’s parent’s house. Diaz sleeps on an air mattress for fear of losing another expensive bed.
“I’m afraid to lose those things,” said Diaz. “I’m not willing to get more because I’m honestly afraid.”
During last week’s first round of storms, it rained hard in Tulare County. In about 30 minutes, Woodlake received roughly an inch of rain, said Ramon Lara, Woodlake city administrator. That caused flooding in some areas, particularly Kaweah Street in the northwest section, which was the hardest hit during last year’s floods. No houses have taken damage but some yards did, said Lara.
The city stationed pumps in the neighborhood and shortly after the storm passed, the flood water receded.
Because the flooding came from heavy rains and not excessive runoff from nearby waterways as it did last year, the situation isn’t as severe, said Lara.
“If the runoff exceeds our ability to pump water and water to flow quickly enough, then we could be in a bad position again,” said Lara.
Right now, the situation isn’t too threatening. The snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains is 65% of average for this time of year. So the potential for overwhelming runoff isn’t there yet, said Lara.
“We’re in a wait and see type of pattern,” said Lara. “But we don’t see the same kind of dominoes falling in place quite yet.”
Last week, the storm drains on Kaweah Street weren’t working properly though, said Diaz. It’s a problem that worsened issues last year.
Diaz sent a letter to city staff back in August, pleading for solutions such as a barrier to redirect flood water running into the neighborhood, pumps on the street and maintenance logs of the storm drains. Diaz never received a response, he said.
In the meantime, pumps and hoses are ready to go if necessary, said Charlie Norman, chief of the Tulare County Fire Department.
The county is preparing for the worst. About 25,000 sandbags have been set up in flood-prone areas, 10 fire stations are distributing sandbags and two swiftwater rescue teams are ready to go, said Norman.
“We may have some issues down the road, depending on what the next wave of atmospheric rivers is going to do,” said Norman. “But at this point, they’re in good shape.”
Diaz said he feels some comfort knowing the pumps are stationed on his street. His neighbors don’t care about sandbags anymore though. If a severe flood happens again, residents feel sandbags are pointless, said Diaz.
The experience is forcing Diaz to reconsider his life.
If the city doesn’t come up with a plan that makes him feel safe, Diaz is going to sell his house.
“I have anxiety. I stand here in my classroom looking out the window just hoping to not see so much rain. Rain used to be a blessing, now rain is like a curse,” said Diaz. “It’s not good for me or my family, living in fear. Who wants to live in fear?”