Jeff Jardine

Some watch and wait while others wade with Tuolumne River overflowing into Airport District

Like so many others who live along the flooding Tuolumne River, Jade Mackey keeps eye on the water that veered out of its channel and turned parts of the Tuolumne River Regional Park into a lake Tuesday afternoon

Mackey and his family certainly know the drill. They evacuated in January 1997 when the water rose to the top of the front porch of their Hillside Drive home in in the airport neighborhood directly across from the park. It crept 3 inches above the top floor window sill of a relative’s home next door. This time, they packed some of their belongings ahead of time and put a crew of friends and family on standby to help evacuate again if needed. Sandbags fill his pickup bed, available in case the water threatened to reach the home’s entryways.

“We’re just hoping for the best,” he said. So far, they’re still dry. By Wednesday morning, the water had crossed Hillside Drive, but for the time being stopped at street level, several vertical feet below his front door.

A few hundred yards away, Rafael Soto couldn’t say the same. His home to the west flooded after the water crossed Santa Cruz Avenue. His dogs and birds are and safe but needed feeding, which he set out to do. A neighbor offered a small vinyl raft that was nothing more than a pool toy, and even then only for a child wearing a life vest or water wings.

Using a 2-by-4 stud, Soto he pushed his way out about 10 feet from dry pavement into the murky water. Then he nearly fell in.

“I’m not good with this,” he said, turning the tiny boat around. Mission aborted. He’d find another way to reach his home and tend to his pets. A smart decision.

That is the way it goes with floods and other nature-related events. Some folks watch and wait while others wade. Some get lucky, others lose most of what they own. Low-income areas usually get hit first and worst.

Mackey lost everything in 1997, but looks to be in better shape in 2017. Soto lived in Newman 20 years ago and was flooded out there, too.

Once the water recedes, talk will shift to recovery for these and other residents impacted. Barring any catastrophic and instantaneous spring runoff, the rebound here should be smoother this time.

With the 1997 flood being the modern standard bearer, it is pretty safe to say this one won’t come anywhere close in terms of damage. Flooding damaged some 1,400 homes in Stanislaus County and about 300 more in San Joaquin County, according to estimates taken from Modesto Bee stories at the time.

Some were repaired while others – including several on the east end of Hillside Drive – were demolished and never rebuilt. Government agencies ultimately bought some of the flood-prone lands to use as flood control and wildlife habitat areas. Other parcels, including some of the lots along Hillside Drive, are now part of the Tuolumne River Regional Park.

Stanislaus County building officials never tracked how many were damaged or replaced specifically due to flooding, said Angela Freitas, the county’s director of planning and community development. Any that were rebuilt in flood zones had to be built higher off the ground, she said. Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties spent about $200 million combined on dealing with the flood.

But a flood management assessment report issued by Gov. Pete Wilson’s office in May 1997 called it the “worst flooding recorded in California history” and estimated damages at over $2 billion. The Federal Emergency Management Agency handled 16,000 claims by homeowners whose properties were damaged in the flood. Statewide, more than 24,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, the cost estimated at $300 million. Only 6 percent carried flood insurance, and the government paid over $10.5 million in family grant assistance. Wilson, in his report, criticized FEMA for its slow pace in reimbursing flood victims.

That one will be hard to top, though damage to the Oroville Dam spillways could make it close. Let’s hope Mother Nature doesn’t feel the need to set any new records.

Until that threat passes, some watching, waiting and wading are inevitable.