Express Investigates: After the Foxglove flood, more questions than answers

Residents are frustrated by a lack of information as the city continues to investigate what happened during last month’s flood.
The inside of Ashlee and Nicholas Kendrick's home as it appeared on Feb. 10, 2019. The house was deemed "unlivable" after a nearby detention pond overflowed, triggering a flood that caused an estimated $100,000 in damage to the first story of the residence. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express
The inside of Ashlee and Nicholas Kendrick’s home as it appeared on Feb. 10, 2019. The house was deemed “unlivable” after a nearby detention pond overflowed, triggering a flood that caused an estimated $100,000 in damage to the first story of the residence. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express

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The inside of Ashlee and Nicholas Kendrick’s home as it appeared on Feb. 10, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express[/caption] Since then, the Kendricks and other residents who have shared similar stories with the Express in the weeks following the flood have expressed a certain level of contempt for city officials over what they call a severe lack of response to the flood before and during the event and lackluster communication between the city and affected residents afterward. Some have described a sense of trauma that followed the flood, a nagging fear that a similar weather phenomena might trigger another natural disaster. Others say there was nothing natural about the disaster, criticizing officials for ignoring the warning signs despite numerous calls to the city about the detention pond in the days and hours leading up to the flood. Most just want answers. They want to know what happened. They want to know what the city is doing to prevent it from happening again. They want to know why no one from the police or fire departments warned them about the river of water rising on the neighborhood streets in front of their homes. And they want to know where to send the bill for the damaged incurred. In the weeks following the flood, the Express has spoken with city officials and residents affected by the flood in order to get answers to those questions. What follows is a fuller account of what happened the evening of Jan. 16 based on public records, photographs and videos sent to the Express, eyewitness accounts and responses to our inquiries with the city. [caption id="attachment_767054" align="alignnone" width="750"]Emergency crews cordon off a section of Main Street near Ivy Loop due to flooding during heavy rains on Jan. 9, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express Emergency crews cordon off a section of Main Street near Ivy Loop due to flooding during heavy rains on Jan. 9, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express[/caption]

Mega storm

The storm brewing off the coast of the Pacific Ocean was so large and so powerful, it prompted a warning from the National Weather Service one week before it was close to crossing land. This was going to be a big one, the warning said. The San Francisco Bay Area was expected to get hit the worst — forecasters and municipal officials there warned of power outages caused by downed tree limbs, traffic accidents due to flooded streets and disruptions on all the major public transit lines. Burn scars left over by several devastating wildfires in 2018 could be ripe for mudslides, forecasters said. Less known was the effect the strong storm would have on the Winters area. Unless you were someone living near the Rancho Arroyo detention pond in Winters, where residents had monitored the level of the pond for days leading up to the storm. The first calls came in to the city a few days before the flood. “Someone — a subcontractor, not the city — brought in a portable pump, one a person could carry, and started pumping,” a resident said in an email sent to the Express. “It didn’t make much difference at all, so they brought in another one. They ran them all day for several days in the week before the flooding.” [caption id="attachment_766175" align="alignnone" width="2000"]A flooded detention pond is pictured near Ivy Loop in Winters on Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express A flooded detention pond is pictured near Ivy Loop in Winters on Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express[/caption] The pond itself has a giant pumping system capable of displacing water when the pond reaches a certain level. That system was “operational but had not yet been connected to power” before the storm hit, according to Crystal Zaragoza, the city’s risk mitigator and human resources manager. To cover for the unpowered pumping system, a contractor delivered several portable pumps ranging in size from three to four inches in diameter six days before the storm, Zaragoza wrote in an email to the Express.  The pumps were blasting around-the-clock, nearby residents said, making a considerable amount of noise in a neighborhood that is usually quiet save for the occasional police or firetruck siren. On Jan. 15, a preview of the mega storm moved through Winters, dumping more than an inch of rain on the city. The water level in the pond started to rise, and another contractor was tapped to bring in several more portable pumps to the detention pond. The city also sent one of its own six-inch pumps to the pond. All told, in the hours leading up to the storm, as many as nine portable pumps were on hand, trying to keep the water level at bay. It was a fruitless effort. The largest storm event of the season came barreling through the region on Jan. 16, unleashing a torrent of wind and rain throughout the region. The storm delivered on a promise made by forecasters, packing a punch that toppled trees and flooded roadways throughout the region. [gallery jnewsslider="true" ids="766249,766248,766245,766244,766243,766242,766241,766240,766236,766235,766234,766233"] Trouble started around Foxglove Circle around 7:30 p.m. The detention pond, filled to capacity, began sending water to an overflow that sits between several houses in that neighborhood. The overflow basin and an associated spillway are supposed to send extra water into the streets, where it is discharged into storm drains that lead away from the neighborhood, according to a city official. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the overflow itself overflowed, sending a flood of water headed straight for the next lowest location: The backyard of the Kendrick’s home. Within an hour, water would be cascading down the front of their driveway. The large amount of water and debris overwhelmed the storm drains; surveillance video obtained by the Express showed water on nearby Snapdragon Street quickly collecting in the road with nowhere to go. In the first hour of the flood, first responders were nowhere to be found. Residents say they took it upon themselves to warn their neighbors to move their cars off the flooded street. Some were able to move their cars onto higher ground. Others were not so fortunate. By 10 p.m., a fire truck conducting a routine post-storm patrol of the city stumbled upon the flooded neighborhood. Firefighters told residents they weren’t sure what was going on, other than the streets had flooded. A half-hour later, a police cruiser joined the fire department in providing traffic control in the neighborhood that sits just a few blocks away from the city’s main public safety building. The rain and the flooding lasted throughout the night and into the early morning hours, with at least one neighbor using a canoe to navigate the streets. [caption id="attachment_769089" align="alignnone" width="750"]Winters City Manager John Donlevy (center) meets with residents about the mid-January flood on Feb. 10, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express Winters City Manager John Donlevy (center) meets with residents about the mid-January flood on Feb. 10, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express[/caption]

The driveway meeting

The next day, the amount of damage became more apparent: Dirt and bark caked driveways up and down Foxglove Circle, Ivy Loop, Snapdragon Street and Ficus Way. Mud smeared on the side of cars. Trash bins were toppled, some ending up at homes several addresses away from where they belonged. Contractors and city crews worked to pump water out of the pond into a nearby storm drain, the large pump sending a stream of water down Main Street. For City Manager John Donlevy, the flood was an unwelcome headache just one day after the end of his vacation. “I am literally two hours into the office off of vacation, so I am trying to figure out what happened,” Donlevy wrote in an email to the Express the afternoon after the flood. But Donlevy was already working on a contingency plan to reach out to homeowners affected after a few had already contacted the city. That plan included canvassing the neighborhoods affected by the flood and leaving a flier on the door of each home pledging the city’s swift response and commitment to keeping in touch as officials learned more about what happened. But some residents who spoke with the Express said the city’s communication with them ended there, with phone calls and emails going unanswered. Bruno Pitton was among those angered by a seemingly lack of response from the city. At the Feb. 5 city council meeting, he criticized emergency officials for a seemingly inadequate response to the flood and excoriated city officials for being silent about the matter. https://www.facebook.com/WintersExpress/videos/996447170545516/ “We just had a car that was totaled,” Pitton said to a packed house. “We found out because someone was ringing our doorbell at 9:25 incessantly, and by that point it was too late to do anything about it.” Pitton said a City of Winters vehicle drove through his neighborhood around 8:15 p.m., “so they city knew about this but they didn’t alert anyone.” “We haven’t seen any information about this,” Pitton said. “It’s barely been reported in the paper, and so I don’t know if they city knows what went wrong…I think this is something that we need to look into and get this information out to the homeowners.” His harsh critique of how the city, first responders and the media were handling the situation triggered a response: Several days later, city officials contacted Kendrick to ask if she would be willing to host a community gathering in her front driveway. She agreed. On Sunday, Feb. 10, nearly a month after the flood swept through Foxglove Circle and nearby streets, several residents gathered in front of the Kendrick’s garage in 50-degree weather hoping to get some answers. [caption id="attachment_769094" align="alignright" width="450"]The Express obtained a copy of this letter distributed to residents the day after the mid-January flood. The Express obtained a copy of this letter distributed to residents the day after the mid-January flood.[/caption] Donlevy came prepared with schematics of the neighborhood and armed with some information for homeowners. He apologized for the flood, saying the pond was built to withstand a 100-year storm and expressing disappointment on behalf of the city that it failed in this instance to do its job. He was most apologetic to Ashlee Kendrick, the homeowner who suffered the most damage, noting that it was especially painful because of the city’s connection to Kendrick’s mother: Nanci Mills, who served as the city’s clerk for more than two decades before she retired last June. Donlevy took the group to the detention pond behind the Kendrick’s home, explaining the functions of the pond, pointing out various features and pledging its mammoth pump would soon be online. Once powered, Donlevy said, it should prevent future occurrences of flooding. Unlike the portable pumps that had been generating noise in the neighborhood before and after the flood, the pump will run so quiet that residents should barely notice it. He answered most of the questions sent his way to the best of his ability and pledged to help facilitate damage claims submitted through the city. But the one question he wouldn’t answer that day was who ultimately was to blame for the pond overflowing. “I’m not going to disparage anyone today,” Donlevy said in response to a question from a resident. Asked after the meeting if he could answer the question in a non-disparaging way, Donlevy pointed to a public records request filed earlier in the day by the Express seeking documents related to the city’s arrangement with the developer responsible for a storm water improvement project on the detention pond. That request was submitted after a city official said an agreement with Wisconsin-based developer Homes by Towne covering the improvement project included an indemnity clause that shielded the city from claims related to the detention pond. Last Thursday, city officials responded to the request with nearly 300 pages of documents that included, among other things, a 2017 contract between the city and Homes by Towne outlining a $6 million improvement project to the Rancho Arroyo detention pond and other sewer and storm water facilities in the area. The contract, signed by Homes by Towne Executive Jeffrey Pemstein and then-Winters Mayor Wade Cowan, covered the city from damage claims before and after the project was finished by requiring the developer to obtain several lines of insurance, including a $2 million policy “for bodily injury liability and property damage liability.” Before work was to commence on the improvement project, the contract required Towne by Homes to submit proof of insurance to the City of Winters with the city listed as an insured party on the policy. DOCUMENT: Click/tap to read the full contract between the City of Winters and Homes by Towne In an email sent to the Express, Pemstein said the developer sympathized with homeowners who suffered damage, saying Homes by Towne was concerned “for any of the residents of Winters who were affected by the flooding.” “As both a homeowner and home builder, we empathize and understand firsthand how difficult and frustrating the situation this is…we believe that the combined efforts of the city and our contractor should avoid any further flooding incidents from occurring in the future,” Pemstein wrote. But Pemstein refused to answer follow-up questions about liability and insurance, including one asking if the developer had obtained a policy that listed the city as a covered party, telling the Express it was “premature” to comment on those matters because they involved “legal and insurance issues.” [caption id="attachment_769099" align="alignnone" width="1140"]Dirt cakes a driveway along Ivy Loop the day after a flash flood in the neighborhood in a still frame from a video shot on Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express (Still frame) Dirt cakes a driveway along Ivy Loop the day after a flash flood in the neighborhood in a still frame from a video shot on Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by Matthew Keys/Winters Express (Still frame)[/caption]

A breach

Flood concerns were renewed last week when a strong atmospheric river event generated strong storms that unloaded even more rain in Winters — this time, during the day. Residents were not the only ones worried about the storm: City officials were, too, and crews were quickly dispatched to the pond to get it prepared for another big rain event. Pumps were brought in to drain the detention pond, and crews were scattered throughout the area to monitor the flow of water. During the storm, someone observed a breach sending around 1,000 gallons of water per minute into the detention pond. In a note published on Facebook last Friday, City Manager Donlevy wrote an excavator and sandbags were brought in to quickly close the breach. “The discovery of the canal breach answers a lot of questions for us,” Donlevy wrote. “Knowing that an external source was pouring thousands of gallons into the pond which are not supposed to go into the pond is a big piece of information.” But how that breach was formed — and who ultimately is responsible for that lapse in oversight — is still unknown. Also unknown is the impact it will have on the numerous property damage claims filed through the city, claims officials say are now being passed along to the developer’s insurance company. Despite the efforts of Donlevy and other officials, residents are still complaining of being left in the dark about what happened and what they should do next. That breakdown in communication has created another breach — one of confidence in the city’s ability to handle the disaster and prevent another one from happening in the future. Bruno Pitton, the resident who pulled no punches at the city council meeting earlier this month, is one of the residents who was unmoved by what he felt was a hastily-arranged community meeting in the driveway of one of his neighbors.  “I fear the city management will not learn from this disaster,” Pitton wrote in a letter to the Express last week. “Developing a response plan and training city employees will go a long way to ensure future flood damage is avoided.” On the four streets that flooded in January, everyone was seemingly impacted in one way or another. Some had to sweep dirt and debris out from in front of their driveway. A few, including Pitton, lost their cars. But no one has suffered more than the Kendrick family: The flood caused an estimated $100,000 in structural damage, Ashlee Kendrick told the Express. The damage was so extensive that it caused their home to be unlivable — her husband is sleeping in a trailer on a rented piece of property while Kendrick and her two children stay with her parents. Repairs to the home have to wait until later on in the claims process, and with more questions than answers, it’s unclear how long that process will take. For the Kendrick family, every answer they can get is one step closer to their family coming back to the place they call home.]]>

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4 comments
  1. I live at the end of Ivy Loop, where the water flowed. If it hadn’t been for a friend who happens to work for the fire department, we would have lost our car too. I’m glad the city found the breach but if the pumps were hooked up properly would that breach have been an issue? From this article it sounds as though everyone is sorry but who is going to take responsibility and help those affected?

  2. I live at the end of Ivy Loop, where the water flowed. If it hadn’t been for a friend who happens to work for the fire department, we would have lost our car too. I’m glad the city found the breach but if the pumps were hooked up properly would that breach have been an issue? From this article it sounds as though everyone is sorry but who is going to take responsibility and help those affected?

  3. Has anyone asked for an engineers report on the construction in & around the detention pond over the last few years?

  4. Has anyone asked for an engineers report on the construction in & around the detention pond over the last few years?

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