As the rainy day wore on, San Francisquito Creek overflowed in multiple locations, flooding streets and closing some roads in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park — but without the kind of damage that occurred when the same location flooded in 1998. Waters began to recede in the early afternoon.
The Pope-Chaucer Bridge, which spans the San Francisquito Creek between Palo Alto and Menlo Park, was of particular concern that morning.
According to Palo Alto's creek monitor, the water levels at the creek were exceeding 21 feet at about 10:40 a.m., nearing the bridge's 24-foot capacity. City officials issued a warning shortly after 10 a.m. that flooding at the bridge was likely within 30 minutes. They also noted that minor flooding was occurring at Seneca and Hale Streets near the creek.
The city's announcement urged residents near the creek to take protective actions, including placing sandbags near the entrances to their homes, raising valuables from low to high places in their homes and making sure vehicles are ready for possible evacuation.
By 10:48 a.m., the roiling, muddy water escaped the creekbed in some spots, rushing down the side streets onto University Avenue and crossing onto Crescent Drive in Crescent Park. The water reached the top of the curbs and approached the sidewalks as it rose up driveway aprons.
Roads flood in Menlo Park
Menlo Park officials also sent out a warning Dec. 31, as heavy rainfall led to pooling along streets and created driving hazards.
Intersections throughout Menlo Park and Atherton were flooded. Middlefield Road between Ravenswood and Oak Grove avenues, by the Menlo-Atherton High School campus on the border of Atherton and Menlo Park, was closed to traffic in the morning and by afternoon, it was closed from Oak Grove to Survey Lane.
Middlefield Road at Linfield Drive in Menlo Park, across from the main fire station, had a growing area of standing water just before noon, as did intersections along Waverly Street in the Linfield Oaks neighborhood.
At Burgess Park, the duck pond had spilled over its banks and flooded areas of the surrounding lawn and the fountain outside of Menlo Park City Hall was surrounded by a growing pond of water before 11 a.m.
Atherton drainage system strained
In Atherton around 10:30 a.m., swiftly flowing muddy water rushed through the Atherton Channel at the intersection of Middlefield and Marsh Roads but hadn't risen to the level of the roadway.
Atherton's drainage system was at capacity during the storm, said Town Manager George Rodericks on Tuesday, Jan. 3. The Atherton Channel reached nearly 7 feet, but it did not overflow, he said.
"There were capacity issues at many of the town's drainage inlets and those systems inundated the surrounding inlets," he said. "There were numerous properties in town, mostly along the Atherton Channel that experienced localized flooding on their property.
There were three power outages, each one affected 49 or fewer homes, due to downed trees, which have all been remedied by PG&E, Rodericks said.
Sandbags were distributed at Holbrook-Palmer Park but, as with other jurisdictions in the county, there were not enough and the town ran out, he said.
Woodside saw widespread flooding, and culverts and bridges became blocked with vegetation and other debris at numerous locations, including roadways, during Saturday's storm, said Town Manager Kevin Bryant said Jan. 3.
The town Public Works Department was responding to storm related issues all day Saturday, he said.
"From Sunday through today, the town crew and additional crews we have been able to hire have been working to clear debris from roadways as well as bridges and culverts in preparation for the next storm," he said in an email.
Fallen tree and power poles caused the closure of Highway 84 from Portola Road to La Honda on Dec. 31, and it remained closed Jan. 1, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office reported.
The Menlo Park side of the Pope-Chaucer Bridge
The Menlo Park side of Woodland Avenue didn't flood near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge, but residents said the creek flooded streets in spots just upstream of the bridge.
Hedeff Essaid said the water ran down Pope Street and drained down to Laurel Avenue. The water had retreated by 11:30 a.m. and the level had receded by about a foot. Still, an enormous debris field of logs, branches, trash and even a kitchen sink had gotten jammed up at the bridge.
Essaid, a hydrologist, was philosophical: "We have dry years and we have wet years. We have to be prepared for both," she said.
A crowd gathered along Woodland Avenue near the Pope-Chaucer Bridge to observe an area taped-off by the Menlo Park Police Department. Behind the tape, an excavator plucked out enormous logs blocking the creek while police officers supervised and onlookers in rain gear cheered. The mood had lifted from hours earlier, when some residents living along the creek had feared their homes could flood.
"This is the highest I've ever seen it," said resident Jim Geimer.
Jenny Jones said that a neighbor had woken her up that morning, telling her that the creek had flooded onto the street and was coming toward the curb. She was directed to get sandbags, which she had to fill herself, to place in her driveway.
Others, some of whom rebuilt their homes since the area last flooded in 1998, said they'd been required to comply with flood protection regulations for their new homes and weren't concerned about the risks.
Farther down the creek on Woodland Avenue, resident Ali Hooshmand stood behind a low fortified wall of wood and sandbags. Earlier that morning, he said his neighbors had alerted him to the flooding and helped form a "bucket brigade" to scoop water out of his flooded driveway. Someone even set up a pump in the adjacent gutter puddle to redirect the water away from the driveway.
While the flood anxiety appeared to diminish on the Menlo Park side of the San Francisquito Creek that Saturday, Sgt. Aaron Dixon of the Menlo Park Police Department wasn't ready to call the situation under control.
What really makes an impact on the creek's water levels, he said, is the amount of rain that's falling in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains farther upstream. And that could still change.
"I'm glad they're clearing out the grates," he added.
Palo Alto homes spared
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt visited the areas around the creek Saturday and said the water went over the banks at numerous places. These breaches, however, were part of the reason the creek did not overflow at the bridge.
One house, at the corner of Chaucer Street and Palo Alto Avenue, had water pouring into its garage and backyard, he said. Otherwise, the properties in the area had generally avoided damage, he said.
"It looks like we had significant street flooding but limited impact on homes," Burt said.
When he returned to the Pope-Chaucer Bridge later in the morning, the water levels had dropped somewhat. By 12:30 p.m., the creek waters around the bridge had receded by about 18 inches, Burt said. He noted, however, that water levels were also high near the Woodland Avenue area in East Palo Alto.
"Downstream, it's still running really heavily and also still overtopping some places, even as it has receded at Pope-Chaucer," he said at around noon.
At the Newell Bridge, which is downstream from the Pope-Chaucer near the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto border, fast-moving water rose to within a foot of the bottom of the bridge. Emergency crews blocked Woodland Avenue at University and removed large chunks of debris with grappling hooks that threatened to dam up the University Avenue Bridge.
Those efforts didn't stop the creek from overflowing in spots in the section between the Newell and University bridges. Parts of Woodland Avenue flooded, inundating yards.
East Palo Alto apartment inundated
At one East Palo Alto residence, water threatened to enter a home. The residents moved a car out of the garage to higher ground and were piling sandbags at the front door. The water was flooding the rear yard where several cars were parked under a carport.
"This hasn't happened for years. The landlord is bringing more sandbags," Juan Cuevas said, as he stood in the flooding yard.
Nearby, a driver in a red pickup truck stopped in the road, tentative about driving through water that had covered the roadway on Woodland. Eventually, the truck driver and others slowly made their way across the streaming current.
Orange caution cones blocked University Avenue at Woodland to prevent drivers heading west from entering the area. Cars traveling east were allowed to pass through to clear the roadway, an East Palo Alto police officer said.
At Manhattan Avenue in East Palo Alto, the road was well flooded, as were several side streets all the way to the West Bayshore Road at the U.S. Highway 101 sound wall.
East Palo Alto resident Webster Lincoln reported that an underground parking structure at the Woodland Apartments had flooded, where cars were up to their wheel wells in water. He took photos that showed a foot or more of water lapping at a bank of front-loading washing machines and filling them halfway.
Work is planned on two bridges
The neighborhoods around the Pope-Chaucer Bridge experienced severe flooding in February 1998, when a storm caused the creek to overflow and water to inundate area homes. Since then, the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, which includes elected officials from Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and the two water districts on either side of the county line, has been working on plans to improve flood protection.
These include replacing both the flood-prone Pope-Chaucer Bridge and the Newell Street Bridge, which is further downstream.
The agency's current plans call for replacing the Newell Street Bridge in 2024 and the Pope-Chaucer Bridge in 2025.
The San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority has completed Phase 1 of the flood protection project, which widened the West Bayshore overpass at Highway 101, added flood walls, a reconfigured channel and protective berms in the creek and flood channel east of the freeway, held up well as the water shot down the creek past East Palo Alto's Gardens neighborhood. The work likely preserved an entire neighborhood that would likely have experienced serious flooding in the current storm.
The Gardens neighborhood has experienced significant flooding in the past, when city officials feared that a major storm could cause a Hurricane Katrina-like disaster event with loss of life. In 2012, the earthen levees were undermined in spots, which could have caused a failure. On Saturday afternoon, the neighborhood remained dry.
Saturday's storm led to numerous street closures in Palo Alto. The underpass on El Camino Real at University Avenue was flooded and traffic was still being diverted at the area on Jan. 3.
Menlo Park police issued an advisory at 4:21 p.m. warning that southbound Middlefield Road at Survey Lane was completely flooded and shut down. Eastbound Marsh Road was reported closed at Haven Avenue.
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