As San Luis Obispo Fire Capt. Armando Gutierrez walked down the dry bed of San Luis Obispo Creek, a police officer serving as a spotter called out from above, on the bridge on Bianchi Lane: “I got him 20 feet out!”
Three firefighters and two police officers dropped an orange fire hose filled with air and secured with ropes down toward the creek bed, where Gutierrez threw his arms over it. If this were a real rescue — not training for anticipated El Niño storms this winter — Gutierrez would have been carried by the current to one side of the creek bank and pulled out of the rushing water.
Instead, Gutierrez climbed back up the side of the bank and led the small group as it rehearsed other swift-water rescue techniques.
“This is an annual refresher we do,” he said. “But we are doing more as far as making sure we are communicating with police. We need to make sure everyone citywide is prepared.”
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Hopes are high that a wet El Niño winter could give California relief from four years of drought. Experts are forecasting that this winter’s El Niño could be historic, ranking among the top three strongest since 1950.
But heavy rains could bring flooding and other problems, such as downed trees and falling limbs.
We need to make sure everyone citywide is prepared.
San Luis Obispo Fire Capt. Armando Gutierrez
In San Luis Obispo and in cities and communities across the county, police, fire, public works and utilities crews are reviewing storm response plans, updating lists of problem locations, removing debris from storm drain systems and clearing fallen trees, silt and other brush that could cause creeks to clog up. Officials are also urging residents to scour their properties to make sure water can flow properly and prepare for flooding if they live in a lower-lying area.
Many also are conducting training drills. The Five Cities Fire Authority — which serves Oceano, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach — will hold its annual storm drill in Oceano on Dec. 10 to make sure the fire department is prepared to respond to a storm event.
Falling down a manhole
In Oceano, flooding problems have plagued the community for years, particularly along Highway 1 at 13th and 22nd streets, and near the Oceano Lagoon.
The Oceano Community Services District is stocking up on sandbags, sending out fliers to homeowners with storm-preparation information and working with the county and local agencies on emergency response in the event of major flooding, general manager Paavo Ogren said.
Of major concern for the CSD is the possibility of manhole covers floating away and leaving large holes in the street that people could unknowingly step into, he said.
“Apparently in New Orleans, they have had cases where people were walking down the street and then just disappeared into the holes,” Ogren said. If flooding seems imminent, the CSD will cover the manholes with sandbags to prevent them from floating away, he said.
In Morro Bay, crews have been repairing worn berms and damaged curbs to help keep rainwater flowing properly in city streets, public works director Rob Livick said. The city has storm drain permitting to clean out its system every April and October, and staff recently finished the fall cleaning.
The city’s low spots are on the west end, closest to sea level. Morro Bay’s corporation yard, where vehicles, tractors and other equipment are stored, is on Atascadero Road near the ocean. Flooding could cause costly damage to the city’s equipment.
“What we’d do is move the heavy equipment across the highway so it’s out of the area where flooding might damage our vehicles and equipment,” Livick said.
In Paso Robles, the city has worked for months to bolster its system of storm drains in preparation for the winter rains after a rare summer storm created havoc on the city’s drainage in July. Paso Robles received nearly 3.6 inches of rain in less than eight hours July 19, pushing sediment into the city’s drainage ways and culverts — flooding the city’s west side.
“The July storm was not one anyone anticipated and we had a couple homes that were flooded as a result, but a silver lining to it was the ability to take a look at where we needed the repairs,” said David LaCaro, city storm water program manager.
Much of that debris flowed into the Paso Robles Events Center in the days before the California Mid-State Fair, prompting fair organizers to quickly remove fallen logs and thick streams of mud that had flowed in from Riverside Avenue.
In September, the City Council allotted about $680,000 to repair west side storm drains, specifically targeting water culverts and pipes and modifying an improvement project to 12th Street to include a sediment catchment feature in the roadway.
“With the drought, it killed off a lot of the vegetation that was holding the soil, so when we start to see these intense rains, we’re seeing a lot of erosion and sediment everywhere,” LaCaro said.
The city has since completed those west side repairs. In October, crews cleared dead vegetation and fallen trees from 16 east side drainage areas to help prevent flooding. By the end of the year, the city plans to notify homeless encampments along the Salinas River of the flooding potential in the normally dry riverbank, LaCaro said.
“Flooding there is a real concern for the homeless people camping, and it’s a public health risk,” he added.
Threat from dead trees
In Atascadero, the city has been clearing drain inlets, ditches, gutters, and other drainage ways of debris, soil, branches and “leaves, leaves and more leaves,” public works director Nick DeBar said.
The city also launched a public outreach campaign after receiving calls daily from residents worried about the potential for flooding. The city has been meeting with residents to discuss options.
“Atascadero is much more rural in nature with lots of hills, which makes the run-off more intense,” DeBar added. Atascadero has also budgeted for temporary staffing to help clear fallen trees and debris from roads should those incidents occur during the storms.
San Luis Obispo County’s public works department is also clearing culverts and debris catchment basins.
The county maintains 72 debris basins throughout the county and is carrying out 6,000 checks of culverts, Wade Horton, county public works director, said in a previous interview.
We call them hot spots — locations where we historically have a problem, where water backs up or doesn’t drain fast. They are places to pay more particular attention to. You don’t want to wait until it’s a problem.
Barbara Lynch, San Luis Obispo deputy public works director and city engineer
Lisa Howe, an administrative analyst who leads the county’s drought task force, said that dead and dying trees in the county could fall over during even minor storms, causing damage or injuries or blocking evacuation routes.
Like other agencies, San Luis Obispo city officials have been preparing for winter storms for several months. Officials have identified about 170 “hot spots” throughout the city — locations that have historically flooded or could indicate potential problems with the storm drain system, public works director Daryl Grigsby said.
The city regularly cleans storm drains; Grigsby said that since 2008 a cleaning truck and crew has removed 966 tons of debris from the storm system.
More recently, a few areas of San Luis Obispo Creek near Mission Plaza that were overgrown with nonnative plants including Himalayan blackberry were cut back to increase the channel’s capacity, city biologist Freddy Otte said. The roots were left intact to prevent erosion problems during winter storms.
In addition, a project in September stabilized the Toro Street bridge over San Luis Obispo Creek.
The creek bank supporting Toro Street was constructed using stacked sacks of concrete, which had started to erode. About 150 tons of boulders were installed beneath the failing walls, and sediment was removed to improve the creek’s capacity.
The project became a priority in part because of the anticipated heavy rains this winter, Otte said.
Tribune staff writers Kaytlyn Leslie, Tonya Strickland and Nick Wilson contributed to this report.