Residents in small Tulare County towns take brunt of historic flooding

March 17, 2023
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A community west of Porterville was flooded by the Tule River last March. Jesse Vad / SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

Mapping the floods

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Tulare County’s two main reservoirs both “filled and spilled” after the latest series of atmospheric rivers slammed into California starting March 10.

The storms dumped rain on the San Joaquin Valley floor and melted at least some of the historic snowpack in upper elevations, swelling rivers and streams that flooded out residents of numerous communities. 

A pump pushes flood water down the drain in Woodlake, Tulare County. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

Lakes Kaweah and Success both reached their storage capacities of 185,600 acre feet and 82,500 acre feet, respectively, and began releasing water from their spillways within three days of each other.

A total of 10,000 cubic feet per second was released from the Schafer Dam on Lake Success into the Tule River starting Monday. And by Thursday morning, a total of  5,500 cfs was being released out of Kaweah, including about 750 cfs from the spillway, into the Kaweah and St. John’s rivers. 

The Army Corps of Engineers, which operates both reservoirs, released statements that neither dam was in danger of being “overtopped,” the integrity of the dams was solid and the spillways were operating as intended.

Downstream, the scene wasn’t so controlled. A combination of water from the area’s main rivers and numerous “uncontrolled streams” proved nearly impossible to rein in. 

Planning for the worst in Woodlake

In the small city of Woodlake, which sits on the Kaweah River just west of Kaweah Lake, floodwater hit hard. Water flowed into streets and homes on March 10, with some houses taking in more than three feet of water. Residents reported that street drains were clogged, causing much of the flooding.

Joshua Diaz in his living room in Woodlake. Diaz’s house was inundated with more than three feet of flood water. He is beginning the process of ripping out all the carpets and part of the drywall to repair the damage. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

Adrian Aldana and his wife Maria Aldana spent days ripping up their carpets and throwing out ruined furniture after their house took more than a foot of water. 

“We never thought it would happen to us,” said Adrian. “It hurts.” 

The couple is worried not only about their house but about the safety of their three children, the youngest of which is 11. The water could hold harmful chemicals and bacteria, said Adrian. It smells bad and gives him a headache, he said. 

Adrian Aldana and his wife Maria stand in their Woodlake home which was heavily damaged from more than a foot of flood water.

The family has no option but to stay with Maria’s mother. But Maria’s brother’s home was also flooded so he and his five children are piled into her mother’s three-room house. 

“Running around trying to get milk for the kids, food. It’s more kids now so it’s more food,” said Adrian. “I’ve gotta try to stay strong for the kids.” 

The family’s home insurance rejected them for any compensation from the damage. So, the couple has turned to starting their own GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the extensive repairs to their home. 

A total of about 25 homes were affected in Woodlake, said Anthony Perez, Chief of the Woodlake Fire Department. 

Perez and other firefighters spent some of this week filling sandbags and for anyone who needed them.

Firefighters fill sandbags in Woodlake in preparation for another storm. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

“We’re planning for the worst,” said Perez. The city’s public works department used tractors to haul furniture or damaged goods from homes, he added. 

“The big issue here wasn’t necessarily the rain within the city, it’s the runoff from the snowmelt,” said Ramon Lara, City Administrator of Woodlake. “We continue to prepare for that.” 

Lara said preparation has been nonstop as sandbags continue to be placed throughout the city and drains are cleared out. 

But it wasn’t enough as some of the same areas that took the worst of the floodwater last week were hit again with more floods on Tuesday night after the most recent storm. Some residents who had spent days ripping apart their homes and drying everything out with fans found their houses flooded all over again. 

Water undrinkable in Seville

In other small towns, the flooding caused problems for drinking water. 

Residents on private wells in the small town of Seville in Tulare County, faced contamination from the floods. 

“If you turn on the faucet you get brown water,” said Linda Gutierrez. 

The flood water has seeped into the well field and made the water undrinkable, she added. For now, Gutierrez and her husband are buying bottled water and filling up water jugs at her mother-in-law’s house. 

Gutierrez has lived in Seville for her whole life, 64 years. Gutierrez remembers some similar storms from when she was a child. But in her adult life, she said she hasn’t seen anything like this before. 

“I’m just worried we’re going to have issues with our well again,” said Gutierrez if more storms continue to batter the valley. “We’ll just probably be on bottled water for another week or two weeks.” 

A dog wanders the partially flooded streets in East Orosi, Tulare County. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

Swift water rescue in Porterville

The surge of 10,000 cfs into the Tule River through Porterville changed the landscape. 

Just south of downtown Porterville the riverbed had been largely dry with a number of homeless encampments. The water rose quickly this week, pushing those living under a bridge, onto the river’s banks. Some people had been living along a dirt pathway that stretched under the bridge in town. But on Wednesday, the river had washed out much of the land, stranding at least one person on a newly created island. 

Rescue crews jumped into action, initiating a “swiftwater rescue” using an inflatable raft. It was the first swiftwater rescue so far since the storms, said Shannon Skiles, deputy chief of the Porterville Fire Department.

A rescue crew paddles back to shore in Porterville after saving a man stranded on an island formed from high Tule River flows. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

Five people and 15 dogs were rescued from the same island earlier with rope and ladders up to the bridge, said Skiles. 

“We are continually monitoring the banks, we are patrolling even at night,” Skiles said. 

No coverage – nothing

To the west of Porterville just outside the city, flood waters had reached stunning heights on Wednesday. 

Water flooded into an entire community off Avenue 152. It happened in 20 minutes with no warning, residents said. 

Sarah Garcia stood at the edge of what looked like a newly formed lake on the road and peered toward her house, which was surrounded by water. 

“​​We were just hoping and praying that it [water] would still be going around us,” said Garcia. “But it just came straight for us.” 

Garcia’s three children weren’t at home when the water hit. She’s also glad all of their animals got out safely. The family has three cats, a dog, two rabbits and a pig. Garcia also rescued a stray cat that was trapped in a palm tree as the flood came. 

Garcia said she doesn’t have flood insurance so her insurance won’t cover any of the damage. 

A shed by a flooded orchard in the rural farmland of Tulare County. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

Just down the road, Juan Ferrer’s house took about six feet of water, he said. 

When the water started flooding in, Ferrer tried to redirect it by shoveling a trench and even called a friend who brought a tractor. But it was futile. 

“The water overran it,” said Ferrer. “And that was pretty much the end of it.” 

Ferrer lives with his elderly mother. His sister and other family members rushed over to help get her out of the house before the water got too high. 

Ferrer also doesn’t have flood insurance. 

“I figured at least that they will cover something where we could get a stay for the night,” said Ferrer. “I guess they’re not covering nothing.” 

Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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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