After flooding, SLO County residents return to homes

Brian Schacherer, left, and his brother Michael help remove soaked carpet from the flooded home of neighbors Margaret Walker and John Carter on Security Court in Oceano on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010.
Brian Schacherer, left, and his brother Michael help remove soaked carpet from the flooded home of neighbors Margaret Walker and John Carter on Security Court in Oceano on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With help from two neighbors, John Carter ripped out ruined carpets and piled them in the back of a pickup truck Wednesday, four days after water from heavy storms flooded the house he owns on Security Court in Oceano.

Surveying the damage, his wife, Margaret Walker, sighed and said, “It’s a nice little house. Some people call it the sanctuary. Others call it ‘casita.’ ”

The couple, who have owned the home since 1992, live in a larger home they built nearly eight years ago on the same property. The smaller house is now used as a guest residence for family and friends — 10 of whom were set to visit after Christmas, to celebrate the new year.

“I told them not to come,” Walker said.

Several days of rain and a swollen Arroyo Grande Creek and nearby lagoon left Walker and her neighbors — many of whom were evacuated — among those most affected in San Luis Obispo County by the storm.

The small neighborhood is tucked away a few streets off Pier Avenue in Oceano and surrounded by the Oceano County Airport and the South County Sanitation District. It has been located in a flood zone since maps were developed about 30 years ago, said Dean Benedix, the county’s utilities division manager.

The area was quiet Wednesday — some neighbors, their homes flooded, have left, while others remained behind to clean up and protect their homes in case of another storm.

Several of the residents expressed outrage and frustration Wednesday that the water in an area known as the Oceano Lagoon flooded their homes instead of emptying into the Arroyo Grande Creek. All said they had flood insurance to cover their properties.

“They need to dredge it,” Steve Ehens said. Some of his furniture still rested on bricks Wednesday, and sandbags were piled up by the entrance of the front door. “Christmas doesn’t really seem that important right now.”

Water in the lagoon drains into the Arroyo Grande Creek through a flap gate in the levee when the water level in the lagoon is higher than the water in the creek, Benedix said.

When water on the creek side of the gate rises above the water on the back gate, the gate remains closed to prevent additional water from flowing back into the lagoon — which is what happened Sunday, when the Arroyo Grande Creek rose to nearly a foot below the top of the levee.

County public works employees learned about two months ago that sediment had built up on the Arroyo Grande Creek side of the flap gates. Benedix said the county applied for an emergency permit last week and on Friday cleaned mud from the flap gate.

It operated correctly over the weekend, Benedix said.

Ehens and his upstairs neighbor, Michelle Craig, questioned why the county and the state — both of which have jurisdiction over different parts of the area, including the lagoon and the airport — can’t work together to find a solution to the flooding.

“Everyone has a stake in it, and we certainly need to look at ‘How do we prevent something like this from happening again?’ ” said Andy Zilke, superintendent of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. “This flooding is really unusual. In 10 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen it like that.”

Environmental constraints may prevent a solution such as widening the creek so it could flow more quickly, he said, “but it’s certainly worth looking at.”

Other ideas, such as a pumping system to remove water from the area, would be expensive and require extensive study, Benedix said.

Different areas of Oceano, including a few spots along Highway 1, have been studied with a focus on preventing flood water from reaching the Oceano County Airport.

Several projects totaling about $2 million have been identified for Highway 1 at Paso Robles and 13th streets, and Highway 1 at 17th and 19th streets, Benedix said. Some of the funding will come from Caltrans, he said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

Groups ready to help

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for the county late Tuesday, putting state agencies and employees at the ready to help county officials as needed.

The Arroyo Grande City Council called a special meeting Wednesday and declared a local emergency, which would give the city access to federal funds if a federal emergency is declared.

A Red Cross shelter at Arroyo Grande High School will close at noon today. The San Luis Obispo County chapter of the Red Cross has been operating the Arroyo Grande shelter since Sunday and has provided more than 25 families with food, shelter, and medical prescription replacements.

The Red Cross will now help those affected by the storms transition back to their homes or with a longer-term recovery plan, according to a news release from the organization.

— Tribune staff report