Still reeling from the severe flooding on New Year’s Eve, residents and businesses around the longstanding flood zone at 17th and Folsom streets were hard at work on Tuesday, taking advantage of a rain-free morning to prepare for another storm tomorrow.
No-parking signs were placed along the southwest corner of 17th and Folsom streets early this morning, indicating the city would be bringing flood barriers shortly — barriers that were not put in place in time for Saturday’s storm.
“A little late, but it doesn’t matter. Better than nothing,” said 52-year resident Samuel Picazo, in a seeming attempt to be positive. Picazo was out on Tuesday morning, trying to clean the murky, oily water that had drenched all the furniture and walls of his ground-floor garage space, reaching nearly four feet on Saturday. Years ago, Picazo said, the city would come and help clean the filth that would coat his family’s belongings after big storms, but he hasn’t gotten that support in years.
Picazo says he’s lived through some three dozen flooding incidents in the half century of living in his home at that intersection, and was unsure why the city failed to protect his home during the last storm or get started on proactive flood barricades.
City leaders at a Tuesday press conference said they were caught off guard by the severity and duration of Saturday’s storm. While they were anticipating up to three-quarters of an inch of precipitation, the city was doused with some 5.5 inches. Far less can inundate flood-prone areas, and often does.
The National Weather Service had predicted days before Saturday’s storm that an “atmospheric river” would bring up to 3.4 inches of rain to San Francisco over a few days.
Nonetheless, San Francisco’s infrastructure was overwhelmed by nearly half a foot of rain in 24 hours on Dec. 31, and preventative measures in known problem areas were not taken: The temporary plastic barriers usually erected outside low-lying areas like 17th and Folsom were conspicuously missing, and dirty water rushed into people’s homes and businesses.
PUC General Manager Dennis Herrera said during a press conference on Tuesday that storms like the one on Saturday are “going to become all the more common with climate change,” and emphasized the need to replace aging sewer infrastructure.
Even so, he appeared to downplay the problem at 17th and Folsom streets. “We really didn’t have a huge problem [there] the other day. But we are deploying the flood barriers now,” said Herrera.
The city has lagged in taking more permanent measures to prevent recurring damages that occur in flood-prone areas of San Francisco. A 2021 settlement with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, mandating $600 million in improvements to Folsom street and two other longstanding flood zones in the city is still in its early stages — years after such improvements were first proposed. No work on this project has begun in the Mission.
On Wednesday, another storm is predicted to inundate the city. Department of Emergency Management head Mary Ellen Carroll said on Tuesday that she was expecting even more rain than initial forecasts suggested, with wind gusts of up to 70 mph likely to topple trees and electrical poles.
Those living and working around Picazo’s home are used to regular flooding during serious weather incidents, and seemed inured to the inconsistent or nonexistent responses from the city.
Public Utilities Commission spokesperson Joseph Sweiss said the storm was “far greater than the capacity of any urban stormwater system. No sewer system, including San Francisco’s, can reasonably be designed to manage the size of storm experienced on New Year’s Eve.”
Herrera touted green infrastructure and the forthcoming $600 million in improvements to address systemic flooding in the Mission, on Cayuga Avenue in the city’s southeast and in West Portal, as proactive measures being taken, noting that construction had begun in West Portal.
Residents were unconvinced. “They’ve spent 40 years saying the same thing!” said Picazo, when asked about the project.
James Lok, owner of Ed Arroyo Auto Body on Folsom Street near 18th Street, seemed similarly skeptical. “If you see how long they dug the tunnel to Chinatown … ” he trailed off, laughing. “They’d rather just pay everybody off.”
The city of San Francisco has already paid out millions of dollars in settlements to residents and businesses in the area.
“The city has not been able to come up with a fix that will remedy the situation,” said Mark Epstein, an attorney who has represented several San Francisco residents in lawsuits against the city, in a past interview. During storms, many of his clients are “just looking out the window, wondering if this is going to be the day when everything is going to overflow and their homes are going to be full of raw sewage again.”
The PUC’s Sweiss told Mission Local that “initial project designs” for the Folsom Street part of the project are expected this summer. Construction for the stormwater improvements will be completed in summer of 2027 at the earliest.
At Ed Arroyo, Lok’s landlord, paid about $40,000 out of pocket to install aluminum flood barriers. An employee was setting them up Tuesday morning. But, during storms like the one on Saturday, even those expensive measures were insufficient.
“We were good for a few years, but the last one, we just got slammed,” Lok said. The city’s drainage failed, Lok said, meaning the water had “nowhere to go” but inside his business.
The city provides reimbursements of up to $100,000 for those who purchase flood prevention equipment. But Lok said his landlord didn’t take the grant, fearing that if she took the money, the city would stop coming out to help.
“We’ve been publicizing our program and encouraging business owners and individuals with a history of flooding to take advantage of it, so we can be your partner,” Herrera said on Tuesday. “And it hasn’t gotten the uptake that we would have hoped.”
The proprietors of nearby Stable Cafe on Folsom near 17th Street purchased floodgates as part of the program. But, like the body shop, the cafe was still hit hard on Saturday. This morning, Stable had its floodgates up and its doors boarded. “Closed until further notice,” read a sign on the door.
Across the street, the manager of Hilde-Brand Furniture, Cleto Gonzalez, said he had never heard anything about how to get such a grant. “Nobody came to us to say anything,” he said.
On Tuesday, Gonzalez and his neighbors gazed across Folsom Street at Stable Cafe and Picazo’s adjacent home, wondering why their businesses wouldn’t be getting any proactive help, even though several of them were flooded during the last storm. (No-parking signs indicating where the barriers would be erected were limited to the southwest corner of 17th and Folsom.)
Gonzalez was working out how to get sandbags for his warehouse, but he wasn’t sure they’d help much: Last week, passing buses repeatedly sent waves of water into his property.
“They’re gonna put barriers over there — not for us, though,” Gonzalez said, turning to his neighbors. “It’s just — it’s really silly.”