Painted koi fish on the street, underwater because of flooding.
Painted koi fish on the street, underwater because of flooding. At 22nd and Guerrero. Photo taken Dec. 31, 2022 by Tyler Pullen.

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.

Samuel Picazo Ponsetta shows a photo of flooding at 17th and Folsom six years ago. Photo taken October, 2021 by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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. 

“They’d rather just pay everybody off.” 

James Lok

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. 

An employee at Ed Arroyo Auto Body sets up flood gates ahead of a storm. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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.”

Samuel Picazo indicates how high the floodwaters on New Year’s Eve reached on the ground floor of his home. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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.” 

Sandbags line low-lying garages and entrances to businesses ahead of a predicted storm. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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.” 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Breed is too busy counting her stacks to notice or care about what is happening to folks living grittier lives than she. A real leader would be at the helm during natural disasters to make sure that the City agencies tasked with prevention & infrastructure care we’re doing their jobs. It defies reason that the most expensive major American city with the most billionaires does not have the competence to correct failing infrastructure. I was at Rainbow last night and saw pallet after pallet stacked with flood-soaked &!ruined goods.
    Attorney Epstein get ready; you have some new customers!

  2. So an area that has had multiple catastrophic floods combines with several days of warning about heavy rains, and yet the city fails to take a single proactive measure in anticipation of the storm. Not a barricade, not a warning to not park in the area, not a sandbag. Nothing. Despite lots of hearings and payouts in the past. Then Herrera says we should expect more storms like this due to climate change. So wise. Yet apparently city leaders were “caught off guard” , so I guess he came by this piece of wisdom after this particular storm. Wow. City leaders: You made a mistake and you let people down. Whether it was indifference or mismanagement, what happened over the weekend was a failure to do whatever you could with the resources you have to lessen the suffering of people who have repeatedly endured the curse of bad infrastructure and climate consequences in this part of the city. Your excuses compound the pain and lend credence to the belief that this city is broken. This problem may not have a solution but for crying out loud, get workers out there ahead of these well publicized storms and at least pretend to care.

  3. Hi Eleni, did Ronen’s office have anything to say about this? Was she contacted and declined to comment, or not asked to comment? I’m trying to keep an open mind, and the difference between not being asked versus not having anything to say makes a difference to me. Thank you!

  4. Surprise, surprise, the DPW was run as a corrupt personal fiefdom by Nuru, with the compliant City Attorney who signed off on everything Nuru wanted promoted to the SFPUC, where he is likewise marking time and ensuring friends with community benefits are happy.

    DPW, AWOL.
    Breed, AWOL.
    Ronen, AWOL.

    Looks like the Mission is already laboring under that libertarian government that the YIMBY crave, only paying robust taxes for the privilege.

    When are SFers going to kick the grifting crowd to the curb?

  5. I thought the city had a plan years ago to put in a massive underground basin at that corner to serve as a buffer for storm water run off. I just assumed that was built under the new park next to that 9 story subsidized housing project near 17th and Folsom. Is it really true that the city built a beautiful new park and 9 stories of subsidized housing on what is probably the most flood prone intersection in the Mission without addressing storm water mitigation first? To be honest I assumed the reason that park was put there rather than more housing was to provide space for storm water mitigation beneath it

  6. Herrera’s “green infrastructure” is a PR stunt intended to lull us to sleep.
    Year after year, there is no plan but the Wizard of Oz at City Hall cranks out excuses.

  7. Herrera’s statement “We didn’t really have a huge problem” is so annoyingly typical of so-called City “leaders”. Completely brain dead as well since there was, in fact, pretty bad flooding there. But since these “leaders” weren’t personally inconvenienced, they don’t give a damn.