On a chilly weekday afternoon while walking San Luis Obispo Creek, city biologist Freddy Otte pointed toward the top of a retaining wall supporting the underbelly of the Marsh Street bridge, indicating the level to which creek waters could rise during this year’s El Niño season.
“When the rain hits, under a bridge is a great place to stop the water from falling on your head,” Otte said, referring to the many homeless who prefer living in creekbeds instead of county shelters. “But in an extreme weather event, it’s also extremely dangerous.”
In 1995, a year with a moderate El Niño, the body of Jack Sterling Perdum, a homeless man known on the streets as “Jay,” was discovered under the bridge more than a month after floods overtook the banks of the creek and several other low-lying locations countywide. As rain fell that January — more than 8 inches in one 24-hour period — Perdum was reportedly caught off guard by the rapidly rising waters under the bridge he called his home.
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Three other local residents died in storms that year. Officials are expecting the 2015-16 El Niño event to be more extreme.
“Everyone should make the assumption that they are going to be impacted by a storm this year,” said Sheriff’s Office Cmdr. Stuart Macdonald, whose deputies have joined other city police and park rangers in reaching out to the homeless living in low-lying areas and creek beds. “And it could happen very, very quickly.”
El Niño is an infrequent weather phenomenon that pushes warmer ocean surface water east to South America’s Pacific coast rather than normal weather patterns in which trade winds travel from the east, creating lower sea temperatures. The El Niño this year is expected to be on par if not more extreme than previous years in terms of rain.
While officials are urging all San Luis Obispo County residents to be prepared with home safety kits and other precautions, a coalition of county and municipal officials and community organizations are working ahead of the anticipated weather to expand services to protect the most vulnerable residents of the county — the approximately 1,515 homeless, including an estimated 970 who don’t access lifesaving services.
Preparing for the worst
At a Dec. 21 informational roundtable meeting at PG&E’s San Luis Obispo Service Center, representatives from the utility, the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services and Public Works, the Sheriff’s Office and the American Red Cross discussed ongoing efforts to prepare for the worst.
“This will undoubtedly … be the strongest (local El Niño) in historical data,” PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey said.
Since the 1950s, San Luis Obispo County has experienced the effects of five noteworthy El Niño events. The three most extreme El Niño events, in 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1997-98, produced seasonal rainfall totals of 38, 47 and 44 inches, respectively.
According to PG&E, experts are comparing the indicators for this El Niño with 1997-98, in which the county issued a local Proclamation of Emergency and storm damages included flooding, landslides and wind damage.
1,515 Number of homeless people in SLO County at risk from El Niño storms
So far, county officials have drafted plans to respond quickly to fallen trees, to remove debris from bridges and flooded and icy roads and to make emergency repairs. Over several months, local cities have cleared out bridge and creekbeds to prevent blockages, updated maps to identify potential flood problem areas and cleared the county’s approximately 4,800 urban and rural culverts, according to the County Office of Emergency Services.
In Arroyo Grande, for example, county Public Works is slated to spend $100,000 to install temporary levee protection and vegetation management in Arroyo Grande Creek.
Emergency Services officials have prepared reverse-911 notifications in case of necessary evacuations, and the Red Cross is securing local shelter agreements and recruiting volunteers for disaster response training.
“We are more prepared for El Niño than in any El Niño year in history,” Lindsey said.
The most vulnerable
Although no one is immune to possible weather-related emergencies, those most in need of help are the homeless, roughly a third of whom live off the grid, outside the safety net of local service providers.
Because of this, a countywide effort to warn those living in the county’s many creeks, tributaries and low-lying open spaces has ramped up in the past month.
Early in December, Morro Bay police and city staff as well as county Social Services officials visited the areas in and around Morro Creek to warn people camping there of the impending storms and the likelihood of severe flooding and to provide lists of resources available to them to escape the harsh weather. That outreach preceded a massive two-day creek cleanup in which about 70 cubic yards of abandoned property and garbage was collected before rains could wash it into the Pacific Ocean.
The effort went more or less as expected: Many of the dozen or so people living there did not leave before the cleanup despite the notice, and many blasted what they called the lack of meaningful services and housing options available to them.
The homeless are an especially vulnerable population to this (weather).
Morro Bay police Cmdr. Bryan Millard
As of last week, some had returned.
“Unfortunately, there’s really nothing preventing them from going back,” said Morro Bay police Cmdr. Bryan Millard. “It was our intent to get ahead of the curve and say, ‘Hey, it’s dangerous here and here are some available resources for you.’ ”
Millard said police will step up patrols of the area, which runs near Lily Keiser Park abutting the Dynegy Power Plant, and contact people there during heavy rains. However, once flooding begins, Millard said, access to many areas in the creek will be cut off and reaching anyone stranded there will require a large emergency response.
“The homeless are an especially vulnerable population to this (weather),” Millard said. “We certainly will be going back there in regular patrols.”
In San Luis Obispo, city park rangers, Natural Resources staff and members of the police department’s Community Action Team, which deals with the city’s chronic homeless population, have been conducting similar outreach.
Like the county, city Public Works and Natural Resources staff have been clearing and maintaining the creek and its many tributaries to identify hotspots for flooding, many of which happen to be where there is easy access to the creek and homeless people set up camp. Other areas, including south of Los Osos Valley Road and beyond, are far more remote and difficult to access.
About 400 storm drain outlets have been reviewed and cleaned, city biologist Otte said, including some outlets that were found buried in sediment and reduced to a fraction of their outflow capacity, which could contribute to potentially deadly backups.
Ranger Service supervisor Doug Carscaden said his staff has been conducting outreach in the creek almost daily, mostly near and under bridges with the most potential for backup and flooding, posting signs indicating the area is a hotspot for flooding or notifications that creek encampments are prohibited.
“We’re trying to be as proactive as we can,” he said. “Fortunately, word spreads pretty fast in the (homeless) community. Unfortunately, for some it won’t matter.”
When the rains hit and flooding begins, city personnel will patrol those areas for campers, many of whom suffer from mental illness or physical disabilities, Carscaden said. “Those are the ones we’ll be checking on.”
He asked that members of the public be observant during storms and immediately report anyone appearing to be in distress.
Local community organizations have played a major role in expanding their services to include warming centers throughout the county, but many said their ability to assist is limited by their own resources.
Warming centers are beginning to open in Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero, Templeton and Paso Robles when there are two consecutive days of rain or temperatures reach 32 degrees or lower, and efforts are underway in each location to provide scheduled transportation.
Meetings are scheduled throughout the coming weeks with the county Homeless Services Oversight Council to see whether that criteria can be further expanded.
“The community organizations are really stepping up,” said Department of Social Services Assistant Director Tracy Shiro. “And once they are going to the warming centers, we can ask them if they are getting assistance, if they need assistance.”
But those organizations need help, too. Most warming centers are understaffed and at risk of not being able to open if there are no volunteers to assist, officials say. Donations of prepared food, sleeping bags, clothes and hygienic products are especially needed in the winter storm season.
More information on county emergency preparedness during the El Niño season can be found at http://www.slocounty.ca.gov/OES/stormprep.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at 781-7909, Twitter: @mattfountain1
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of storm drain outlets that had been reviewed and cleaned in San Luis Obispo.
San Luis Obispo County annual rainfall totals by El Niño event
* Weak El Niño year. Historically, weak or moderate El Niño events are less consistent and may not be a reason for the season’s overall rainfall total, while strong El Niño events have consistently produced heavy rainfall since 1950.
in San Luis Obispo County
Five Cities Homeless Coalition is hosting a center in the conference room of the SLO County Social Services building at 1086 Grand Ave. in Arroyo Grande when there are two consecutive days of rain and/or temperatures drop to 32 degrees. The coalition needs volunteers and donations of food, clothes and hygienic items. For more information, call 574-1638 or email email@example.com.
Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County will open the Prado Day Center at 43 Prado Road in San Luis Obispo as a warming station when there are two consecutive days of rain and/or temperatures drop to 32 degrees. CAPSLO needs volunteers and donations of food, sleeping bags and hygienic items. For more information, call Grace McIntosh at 291-1008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Atascadero First Assembly of God Church at 5545 Ardilla Ave. in Atascadero is opening a warming center from 6 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. More information be can found by calling 466-2626 or emailing email@example.com.
Beginning Monday, Paso Cares will host warming centers on days with a 50 percent or higher chance of rain and/or when temperatures drop to 35 degrees or lower. The centers will be located Mondays and Wednesdays at Covenant Presbyterian Church at 1450 Golden Hill Road in Paso Robles; Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Life Community Church at 3770 Ruth Way in Templeton; and Fridays at Highlands Church at 215 Oak Hill Road in Paso Robles. For more information, call 712-7067 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.