SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — Members of more than 150 families affected by last year’s Coyote Creek flood in San Jose and a lawyer that will represent them held a news conference Thursday to announce a civil complaint being filed against the city and other agencies.
Attorney Amanda Hawes and her husband, environmentalist Ted Smith, introduced a few residents who lost possessions in the flood that took place on Feb. 21, 2017. Residents, including their daughter-in-law Jolene Noel, gave accounts of how their lives and the lives of those they know changed after the flood.
The briefing took place at the William Street Park bridge area.
Smith pointed out that on the day of the flood, the area was completely under water.
Noel, who lives in the Olinder neighborhood, talked about how her 9-year-old daughter is still afraid of rain after their basement was underwater that day.
“We want to be made whole again, if that’s at all possible,” she said.
Noel said that her family was among the lucky ones who had flood insurance, but it only covered a portion of the costs.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency “denied covering damage we believe the flood caused to our house’s foundation, because these houses are old and they will blame it on that,” Noel said.
Noel said the aftermath of the flood is still visible in the neighborhood.
“There are still bins with people’s belongings in the street; we are still not back to normal,” she said.
Hawes spoke about how many residents had a hard time finding housing they could afford when theirs was no longer livable.
The common message among the residents was that they feel the city, county, water district and more could have warned them farther in advance about potential flooding.
The complaint being filed lists the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District among the defendants.
Board chair Richard Santos from the water district said in a statement that the district had not been served with the lawsuit as of this afternoon, but said “our hearts go out to the many community members who were impacted by the serious floods of 2017.”
Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said in a statement that it was “unfortunate” that the county was involved in the lawsuit, noting that the county “does not have responsibility for evacuations within city limits”
and “continues to support a number of programs for the flood victims, including property tax relief.”
San Jose city officials were not immediately available for comment on the suit.
Santos noted that the district has taken many steps to reduce the risk of future floods, including lowering the water level at Anderson Reservoir, located near Morgan Hill, removing downed trees and invasive vegetation in Coyote Creek, and designing a berm and temporary flood wall in the Rock Springs neighborhood.
Hawes at the news conference mentioned the overflowing at the reservoir and debris in the creek as reasons for the flood.
“Coyote Creek doesn’t flood unless the Anderson Reservoir overtops,” she said. “The folks in charge have probably known about this for 40 years.”
Smith was most upset about how Rock Springs flooded before Olinder, or many other neighborhoods in the area, and no one warned residents that the water was coming.
Smith said that the creek line really does divide the high- and low-income areas around William Street Park.
“If you look at the names on the complaint, it’ll give you a pretty good sense of who it is that was the most affected,” Smith said. “It’s disproportionately Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, African American and several other minorities, and that is the best proof I know of.”
Ellis said that the animals at Happy Hollow Zoo were pulled out of the facility the night before the flood while residents in her Rock Springs area were not given any notice as to what might happen.
“We shouldn’t have suffered because of where we lived demographically,” resident Sinia Ellis said. “We’re people too.”
Hawes said the families are seeking damages in the millions because they lost things in the flood that can never be replaced.
“They have lost work, they have lost time, and they have lost affordable housing,” Hawes said. “That adds up.”
Beyond financial losses, a few of the residents suffered from health issues as a result of the flood. Hawes listed Samantha Lopez, a Rock Springs resident, as an example.
In her statement, Lopez said that at 24 years old, she now deals with lupus due to stress from months of being evacuated and from rebuilding her home.
In her letter, Lopez wrote that she saw the floodwater on her way to work, but upon seeing police and water district employees, she felt safe leaving her 12-year-old sister and 80-year-old grandfather at home. She has felt guilt ever since she received messages from her sister saying differently that day.
Lopez said the stress, which she believes caused her lupus, has caused damage to her kidney.
“My anxiety and restless nights did not cease after the flood waters subsided … they continued into the multiple months thereafter,” she said.
Ellis said that she believes her neighborhood has suffered the effects of the flood, but that they are now a more tight-knit community.
“I want people to take responsibility because we do matter,” Ellis said. “I’m not leaving.”