Imagine you just moved to San Francisco’s lovely Mission Terrace neighborhood tucked in between Interstate 280 and Alemany Boulevard. You’ve had just enough time to meet a few neighbors, get used to some of the area street names and maybe hit the town once or twice while you settle in. Keep in mind California is in the middle of a record drought.
Bam! December roars in like a lion, and floods your street not once but twice in just a couple of weeks. It hasn’t rained since. This is the exact situation Blane Bachelor found herself in at the end of 2014.
Bachelor moved into her house in September, and now finds herself in the middle of a possible lawsuit against the city for not helping prevent the flooding in the first place.
“We’re not looking for a paycheck,” Bachelor told a group of neighbors a month after the flooding at small gathering of those hit the hardest. “We just want to be made whole again,” she said.
Flood Plain in the Streets
At the end of Cayuga Avenue next to an underground catch basin beneath Interstate 280 is a major choke point for San Francisco’s rapidly aging combined sewer and storm water system. The basin is where much of the runoff from Glen Canyon funnels down into Islais Creek that continues to flow beneath the Mission Terrace neighborhood.
Whenever there is a major deluge, the water has no place to go because of the historic floodplain’s naturally low lying contour. The storm drains overflow, and houses get flooded from the street. That’s exactly what happened in 2004, Cathy Mueller, who grew up in the neighborhood, said in an interview. She was living in the suburbs at that time, but her grandmother’s Mission Terrace garage flooded then, along with several other neighbors.
“This block of 40 houses on Capistrano Avenue only has one storm drain that is located at 255 Capistrano Ave.,” she said. “Everytime the storm drain gets too much to handle, the aftermath goes into our homes, because the storm drain level is higher that our sewer lines.”
It wasn’t just street runoff this time, however, Mueller said, adding: “We experienced a lot of backups in our lower basements, from sewer coming up from the storm drains.”
Mueller described her neighbors houses that she says had sewage coming up through toilets, shower drains and even sinks.
“The smell was awful with the urine, feces and mold that occurred until we were able to clean up with the dry weather,” she said.
Neighbors took advantage of free city provided sandbags to keep water out of their garages and basements, but sewage coming up out of household pipes can’t be stopped so easily.
There isn’t a whole lot that can really be done by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, spokesperson Tyrone Jue said in an interview.
“Under Cayuga is a nine foot water tunnel designed in 1910,” Jue said ruefully. “Most neighborhoods have 18 inch pipes.”
Perhaps there could be a small bit of relief if the tunnel were to be made bigger, but that would be an enormous project, he said.
“The PUC is dedicated to helping its customers, but the lowest points are always going to get flooded. 17th and Folsom is in the same situation, a former creek bed,” he said.
Instead, the SFPUC helped organize clean up crews and contractors to help those hit hardest cleanup and repair their houses. The Department of Public Works also helped organize Recology to come out and pick up piles of filth ridden refuse off the streets, according to a DPW spokesperson.
Before a large storm, DPW also tries to go out to Mission Terrace to make sure the sewers are free of debris. During storms like we had in December 2014, it seems those efforts simply aren’t enough.
That’s why Bachelor and some of her neighbors gathered in January 2015 to discuss a possible lawsuit. Some neighbors did sue in 2004, and attorney Mark Epstein helped them win a settlement at that time. A class action lawsuit remains a possibility, but neighbors were still taking stock of the damage and figuring out much repairs would cost a month after the storms.