Clad in water resistant hiking pants and a bright rubber duck yellow plastic rain coat, Emily Zedler pulls over on the corner of Carriage Drive and Llagas Road in Morgan Hill. A debris line pointed out by her colleague, Robert Chan, causes Zedler to park the small SUV bearing the Santa Clara Valley Water District logo.
Flooding from the nearby Llagas Creek has hurled landscape pebbles from a corner home across the street and as far as six houses down. Zedler and Chan walk out of the vehicle to trace the floodwater pathway. They search avidly for signs of debris, photographing damaged grass, muddy water residue, and solid trails of weakened tree branches, twigs, and leaves flung and carried by stormwaters. They take video of the evidence with commentary and manage to capture a backed up sewer top spewing water. The stormwater system is backed up from the nearly six inches of rain that fell over Morgan Hill during the weekend storms of Jan. 7-9.
Zedler and Chan are members of the water district’s Flood Information Team (FIT) – a group of volunteer district employees who are willingly dispatched before, during or after large storms to flooded or at-risk sites to assist the water district’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Zedler and colleague Jack Xu, both associate civil engineers, lead the water district FIT efforts.
When the EOC is open for monitoring or emergency response activities, FIT becomes the water district’s eyes and ears on the field. FIT members travel across the county to collect real-time on-the-ground information for the decision makers in the EOC. While emergency response staff is coordinating with local government leaders and county or city emergency managers, FIT members gather critical information on the status of creeks essential for disseminating public information and safety messages to residents.
FIT members travel in groups of two or three to sites that need special attention during high flows. These could be areas with a history of flooding, creeks downstream of a spilling reservoir, or areas prone to blockages from debris or trash. Readings from the water district’s stream, reservoir and precipitation gauges also help discern which areas require extra attention.
The observers are equipped with flooding “hot spot” maps, smart phones, radios and extra batteries, safety vests, first aid kits, flashlights, tape measure, yard sticks, waterproof notepads, a FIT manual and district flood safety information guides (to hand out if they are approached by residents). When in the field, FIT members take detailed notes and sketches, noting landmarks. Using the district issued smartphones, they are able to capture images and video of conditions, record geographical location and exact time, and upload them immediately to an internal site that EOC staff can access.
Since becoming an official water district activity in the early 2000s, FIT efforts have greatly evolved. Senior Engineer, Sara Duckler, led the mission to formalize the team’s purpose, objectives and training. She established a comprehensive training program and assembled the standard equipment kit. Duckler attributes her leading role to the previous hard work of Randy Talley, Supervising Engineer in the Flood Policy & Planning Unit and now retired district employee.
Before Duckler formalized the team’s operations, Talley explained FIT activities were happening as early as the late 60s and early 70s, decades before the completion of several flood protection projects. “In the earlier days of FIT, we had few personnel and a lot of facilities not adequately built to contain flooding, so we needed extra people on the field.”
Since the early 1980s, the water district has invested more than a billion dollars in flood protection programs, including constructing major flood protection projects, and protected more than 93,000 properties in previously flood-prone areas. There are an additional 18 flood protection projects underway in our county.
Several facilities are still at risk of flooding during heavy storms, and the FIT group continues to be invaluable to the leaders EOC as well as our maintenance crews. With the detailed documentation, maintenance crews know which areas need upkeep during a storm. The status updates also help coordinate with city leaders and inform residents of current conditions and possible risks, as well as advise which safety measures to take.
While they are out in the wet, cold and sometimes dark during the peak of storms, FIT members are an essential part of the water district’s flood-fighting response team, giving us an intimate view of what happens when Mother Nature strikes hard.