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Encore: Recovering from storms, California communities hope for a long-term plan


Californians are dealing with the aftermath of January's big storms, storms that could only get worse, according to some climate scientists, as the world continues to warm. In one recently flooded neighborhood, residents are looking for a long-term fix. KQED climate reporter Ezra David Romero paid a visit.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Antonio Lopez walks a recently flooded neighborhood in East Palo Alto, about half an hour south of San Francisco along the bay. A pump removes water from a parking garage that San Francisquito Creek turned into a lake.


ROMERO: A New Year's Eve storm dropped nearly four inches of rain, engorging the creek. Floodwaters poured into the community. Around two dozen cars were swamped.

ANTONIO LOPEZ: But the ones you see here, I can almost guarantee you they're totaled. They can't be moved because the water hit their motor.

ROMERO: Lopez is the city's vice mayor. He helped a woman frantically trying to get into her car the day of the flood.

LOPEZ: It was heartbreaking, man - trying to salvage her possessions from her car because the water came up all the way to the window.

ROMERO: Early estimates put the damage at more than $100,000. Statewide, the economic losses from flooding are estimated between $5 and $7 billion. That's according to Moody's RMS, which models global catastrophe risk and solutions. President Joe Biden visited the region in mid-January to tour flooded communities.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In the San Francisco Bay Area, I've instructed my administration to bring every element of the federal government together with the help of immediate needs to long-term rebuilding.

ROMERO: Federal disaster assistance is available for nine California counties, including San Mateo, where East Palo Alto is. In East Palo Alto, community organizer Marisela Ramos leads an effort to get outside aid to help pay for local damages.

MARISELA RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: She says the totaled cars were many residents' primary mode of transportation to get to their jobs, to generate money, to pay rent and to buy food for their kids.

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMERO: San Francisquito Creek has flooded many times. A new study out last month in the journal Nature Climate Change projects the most extreme winter storms will only get more intense. Study co-author Ruby Leung is with the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Lab.

RUBY LEUNG: Assuming we continue to use fossil energy in a similar way, we project about 30% increase in the total precipitation. But such number could be reduced if we can do something about it.

ROMERO: She says all that water can strain or even break through levees, like floodwaters did in Monterey County last month.

LEUNG: The information that we used before to design the infrastructure may not be relevant anymore, and we need to incorporate knowledge that we now have about how the future may be changing.

ROMERO: In East Palo Alto, city and regional leaders have already been working on a long-term fix to allow more water to flow from San Francisquito Creek to the bay. They have long had plans to build a new bridge and deepen and widen the creek channel.

MARGARET BRUCE: We know we can't completely do away with the risk of flooding.

ROMERO: Margaret Bruce leads the effort. She's the executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority. The plan is to protect the community from future catastrophic flood events.

BRUCE: We can no longer plan our future looking in the rearview mirror.

ROMERO: Bruce says it will cost at least $50 million. State or federal infrastructure money could help. Otherwise, San Mateo County, East Palo Alto and nearby cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park are on the hook to finish it.

BRUCE: Instead of having the creek as the boundary, the creek has ended up being the thing that joins the counties in these three cities.

ROMERO: If funded, the creek restoration could be completed as soon as next year.

For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in East Palo Alto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero/KQED