How the flooding in Oceano went from bad to worse

Tribune photo by Jayson Mellom

As water steadily crept up the lawn and into her mother’s home, Terri Boyd decided to stay put.

While her mother and brother took refuge in a local motel room, Boyd watched as the house on McCarthy Avenue in Oceano filled with more than a foot of water.

Since that day, Dec. 19, two relatives have ripped out the once-tan carpets and replaced some drywall.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Boyd, 50, who lives with her mother, Betty Busick, and brother, Tracy. “No help has been offered.”

She’s called county and state officials asking for aid. The American Red Cross stopped by a few days after the flooding and dropped off a cleanup kit — a mop, a broom, some gloves.

Busick, who has homeowner’s insurance but no flood insurance, said the cost of cleanup could top $30,000.

As Busick and several dozen other Oceano residents continue to clean up their flood-damaged homes, some are questioning what steps can be taken — and which local and state agencies are responsible — for addressing flooding problems that have happened for years, but never, some say, to this extent.

The waters had risen because a string of heavy December storms hit San Luis Obispo County — with Oceano receiving nearly 7.5 inches of rain over a seven-day stretch from Dec. 17 to 23.

Many of the damaged homes, including Busick’s, are in neighborhoods off Pier Avenue near the Oceano County Airport and the South County Sanitation District. Their homes were flooded with water from the Oceano Lagoon, which was unable to empty into the rain-swollen Arroyo Grande Creek.

Other problems could have contributed to the flooding: Residents say the creek and the lagoon have not been properly maintained. They also question whether the flood gates separating the two operated properly.

Local officials have started meeting with residents to discuss the flooding problems. But despite their initial efforts, no aid is being offered to individual homeowners or renters, said Ron Alsop, the county’s emergency services manager.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the days immediately after the flooding occurred. While that doesn’t provide assistance to individuals, public agencies could receive partial reimbursement from the state for some of their costs during the storm.

County officials are waiting to hear whether the amount of damage meets the threshold for the U.S. Small Business Administration to offer low-interest loans to homeowners and renters who are uninsured for flood damage, Alsop said.

The county estimates that 70 homes in San Luis Obispo County had minor to major damage from the storms, which pounded the area for several days before Christmas. Most of those homes were in the South County, but some damage was also reported in Atascadero, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Santa Margarita and Templeton.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which assessed damage primarily in Oceano and Avila Beach, tallied 40 homes with major damage, Alsop said.

He said the county estimates $1.1 million in damage to residences and more than $900,000 to businesses.

Of the $1.1 million, about $610,000, or 55 percent, was in the Oceano area.

What can be done?

While some residents deal with the aftermath of the December storms, others are pushing for solutions.

“It’s been suggested that we, the residents, contact the different agencies to arrive at solutions to the problems which caused the flooding,” Oceano resident Joe Schacherer, who lives on Security Court, recently told county supervisors. “It’s not our job to do so.”

Schacherer’s home was not damaged, but many of his neighbors’ houses were flooded. Now, he’s acting as a liaison between some of the residents and county officials, asking: “Where do we go from here?” He asked the supervisors to partner with other agencies to address the problems.

Schacherer also thanked Supervisor Paul Teixeira, who jump-started his first term in office by meeting with Oceano residents and touring the flooded areas.

Teixeira said he’d already initiated meetings with county public works staff to discuss short- and long-term solutions. The county is planning a community meeting in Oceano in April to address residents’ concerns and answer questions, Public Works Director Paavo Ogren said.

Public works staff will present recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in May on ways to address the flooding, including priorities, infrastructure alternatives, emergency permits and funding.

One recommendation could be that, in the event of a major storm system, the county pursues an emergency work permit to help the creek breach a sandbar more quickly, allowing water to flow into the ocean faster, Ogren said. This could prevent the lagoon from flooding nearby homes as it did in December.

The county used to be able to do so about 15 years ago but had to stop because of changing environmental regulations.

A few short-term improvements are already under way, including replacing equipment that automatically monitors the water level in the lagoon, which had malfunctioned before the storms started. Public works staff monitored the lagoon in person throughout the storms.

But addressing the flooding problems will take some collaboration between local and state agencies.

History of flooding

Before 1950, Arroyo Grande Creek flooded numerous times, wreaking havoc on prime farmland and causing damage to businesses and homes.

In the late 1950s, a levee system extending three miles inland from the ocean was constructed to constrain Arroyo Grande Creek and prevent flooding.

However, some Oceano residents say the creek has not been properly maintained and that the lagoon and the creek need to be dredged.

“The main problem is getting more capacity to the creek and letting the creek flow out better” into the ocean, said Glenda Guiton, who has lived in Oceano since 1940.

The lagoon area, a marsh drainage system that enters Arroyo Grande Creek just upstream of where it empties into the ocean, is another issue that will likely be studied.

The lagoon is not part of a public works emergency response plan for the area known as Zone 1/1A, which includes portions of Arroyo Grande, Oceano and Halcyon.

Ogren said he’ll recommend the lagoon be incorporated into his department’s emergency response plan, which is about 3 years old and focuses on responding to any emergencies that could happen involving the levees.

Another issue that will likely be discussed is a flap gate separating the lagoon from the creek, which allows water in the lagoon to empty into the creek and prevents water from the creek flowing back in.

Public works staff plans to replace the 50-year-old iron gates with a different type of valve that should require less maintenance and provide a better seal.

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 into the lagoon — which is what county officials say happened Dec. 19, when Arroyo Grande Creek rose to nearly a foot below the top of the levee.

County public works officials say the gate operated properly during the flooding, but local residents dispute that assertion.

“We’re going to monitor it ourselves,” Terri Boyd said. “We’ll cut open the lock if we need to.”

Locals say Glenda Guiton’s husband, Harold Guiton Jr., who died in 2001, used to open the flap gates himself.

His daughter, Linda Austin, said her father would also drive his tractor to the mouth of Arroyo Grande Creek and cut open the channel so it could flow straight to the ocean — a tactic that isn’t possible today, given the different environmental restrictions.

“He’d dredge the lagoon out here when it needed it,” Austin said. But if someone tried to do that today, “you go to prison,” she said.