Flood efforts surge forward with another round of storms
200,000 sandbags placed, every creek gets attention
With the community already rattled by the widespread damage from the January floods, city and county crews, along with state partners, appeared to have quadrupled their efforts to protect residents, homes and infrastructure as not one, but two, atmospheric rivers passed overhead in recent days.
As of Wednesday morning, just before the Times press deadline, it appears the region may have been spared the kind of flooding that swept through the areas of Planada, McSwain and West Bear Creek in Merced weeks ago, temporarily displacing thousands of residents and causing millions of dollars in property damage.
Mercedians woke to nothing but clear blue skies on Wednesday morning, though they experienced quite a heavy downpour late Tuesday afternoon. Down the highway, residents in Tulare County were not so lucky as areas near waterways were experiencing severe flooding and evacuation orders.
More rain is expected as early as Sunday, March 19, and peak rainfall is expected on Tuesday, according to forecasts.
Flood alerts remain in the region as attention turns to water flows on Mariposa Creek in the Le Grand area, along with the Merced River and Bear Creek.
“Our area of concern right now is Mariposa Creek in the Le Grand area,” Sheriff Vern Warnke told county leaders Tuesday morning. “Don’t know where that water is going to go if the Army Corps of Engineers’ prediction comes to fruition. It’s going to be more water coming down that creek than the Merced River. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Fortunately the debris has been removed because I was very fearful of the bridge over Fresno Road.”
Flows increased on the Merced River — another area of concern — as of Wednesday, from 6,000 cubic feet per second up to 6,500 cubic feet per second below New Exchequer Dam.
For the folks along Bear Creek, Sheriff Warnke said he was pretty confident the waterway will manage increased flows. “It’s going to rise obviously, but we flew over those two dams yesterday, and I really think there is some room behind them to hold back the water that is predicted,” he said.
In any case, Warnke assured leaders that his rescue teams were in strategic positions across the county, and that the Emergency Operations Center was ready to deploy dozens of additional deputies at a moment’s notice if needed.
And that’s just one part of a massive effort that has been ongoing between local and state agencies in the Merced area and across the county. Over a week ago, the state’s Department of Water Resources sent two specialists to assist city and county engineers as they made evaluations and prioritized projects in the region, particularly along Bear Creek.
City and county Public Works personnel and engineers led six California Department of Corrections crews with a total of 103 workers. Within a week’s time, they placed some 200,000 sandbags in flood impacted areas, including along Bear Creek all the way from Highway 59 to R Street. This also included the construction of Muscle Wall near the residential area of Hwy. 59 and Bear Creek. A majority of the materials were secured by the legislative efforts of State Senator Anna Caballero, State Senator Marie Alvarado-Gil, and Assembly member Esmeralda Soria.
Crews fortified and provided maintenance for virtually every creek in the county, including Cottonwood / Deadman’s, Fahrens, Black Rascal, Mariposa, Miles, Quinto and Garza, and Dutchman’s.
During the preparation, a county contract effort with Ceres Environment has also been cleaning up flood debris from the previous storms — nearly 3,000 cubic yards, along with 4,000 additional yards collected through dumpsters located in impacted areas.
Five potential shelters were created in a matter of hours, including at the Merced County Fairgrounds, the Atwater Community Center, the Christian Life Center in Merced, the Al Gorman Community Center in Gustine, and the Los Banos Community Center. During the current weather event, the high point of use was at the Fairgrounds with up to 41 people seeking shelter, but that number has come down significantly, according to officials.
Merced City Manager Stephanie Dietz announced on Monday that: “Out of an abundance of caution, both the City of Merced and Merced County declared a new emergency so that whatever preventative measures and or if there are any damages incurred by our residents, they would be eligible for a new claim under FEMA, so that the claim limits would not be applicable from the January flood. [The new emergency declaration] would open up opportunities for our residents to seek reimbursements from either the state or federal governments.”
Regarding assistance related to the January floods, county officials said Tuesday that they have asked FEMA officials to stay in the region until April 15 — well past the scheduled March 16 deadline in order to accommodate struggling local residents.
Since early January, a combination of the county’s Human Services and Housing Authority, along with CAL-OES, the Department of Housing and Community Development, Catholic Charities disaster case managers, the United Way and other community-based organizations have worked to assist those families who have been displaced from homes or are facing other hardships.
Some 45 households found temporary relief at the Felix Torres Migrant Housing complex in Planada. Twenty-seven of those families have since identified their own housing plan, and 18 families remain in need of short or longer term housing solutions. Of the latter, 10 have been placed in newly available housing units at Felix Torres while repairs are completed to their homes, or permanent housing has been identified. The remaining eight were placed in a hotel until a more permanent solution can be identified.
Merced County has submitted a request for Direct Housing Assistance for the 2023 flooding event through CAL-OES. Officials say it’s a long process that takes time; however, the program does provide temporary housing in the form of recreational vehicles or manufactured housing units. Eligibility for direct housing is based on the extent of damage to the survivor’s house, whether insurance to cover damages is available and other factors.
District Attorney Nicole Silveira showed up at the Tuesday meeting with county leaders and announced that her office is providing Renter’s Rights guidance to impacted residents. A presentation is available for view on the Merced County District Attorney’s Facebook page.
Silveira said the basic rule of thumb is that a tenant is not responsible for damage caused to dwelling by a natural disaster, and the landlord is not responsible for damage to tenants’ personal property. However, there are many scenarios that can pertain to affected residents.
Silveira said she plans to host a “Know Your Rights” meeting on Wednesday, March 29, at 3:30 p.m., at 9393 Broadway in Planada.
Merced County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez said he is proud of the work that is being done by his staff and others.
“This has been an all-hands on deck response from your county team,” he told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
Board Chair Scott Silveira cautioned that the local population is not out of the woods yet.
“Everybody is looking at forecast models, and things that could happen to best prepare as possible, but the message is: remain vigilant. We just heard from some residents who spoke up earlier about it being 2 a.m., when all of a sudden, holy heck broke loose and water starts running into their house. There is still the potential that could happen. There was a comment that was made that Merced County is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. For our residents: You might not see everybody who is out doing the work, but some of the pictures that they shared during [today’s] presentation show you the massive amount of work that is going on to prepare for these floods, trying to deal with the aftermath of the previous floods — and oh by the way — we still have a county to run that’s got 2,500-plus employees, and I can’t even name the amount of programs going on. I give our staff right now just an ‘A’ for effort on really trying to juggle everyday work and crisis work. Kudos to you.”
Sandbags in Merced
Sandbags are available from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at The City of Merced Purchasing Building, 2525 O Street. Please enter from O and 25th Streets. Availability will be on a first-come, first-serve basis. For directions to the Purchasing Building and a list of sand locations, visit the City’s Storm Information Webpage. Expect to fill and transport your sandbags. Please bring a shovel. Sandbags are heavy. Please be prepared to lift more than 50 pounds.
- Merced County Fairgrounds: 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Merced (signage will be in place).
- Atwater Community Center: 760 East Bellevue Road in Atwater.
- For after-hours urgent Public Works matters, please contact police dispatch at (209) 385-6905.
- Merced County Office of Emergency Services 24-hour Information Line (recording): 209-385-7379.
- Sign up for flood information by texting MCFLOODS to 888777.
- Human Services Agency Flood Hotline (209) 385-7563 (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.)