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California schools face ‘deep trouble’ as flooding danger looms

The flood-ravaged courtyard of Pajaro Middle School on March 11, 2023.
Thomas Peele
The flood-ravaged courtyard of Pajaro Middle School on March 11, 2023.

As heavy storms keep pounding California with torrential rains and a record Sierra snowpack is poised to melt and send rivers surging over their banks, more than a fifth of the state’s 10,000 K-12 schools are at a high or moderate risk of flooding, an analysis of federal data by EdSource shows.

Schools in flood-prone areas, in some cases protected by aging, weakened levees with poor safety ratings, face possible floods similar to those that have already swept through schools in Alameda, Merced and Monterey counties this year, causing millions of dollars in damages, Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows.

Flooding in the Tulare and the San Joaquin basins in the Central Valley in the months ahead “is inevitable,” Jeffrey Mount, a geomorphologist and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who studies flood and water management, told EdSource in an interview.

“We’re looking at a pretty epic spring in those places. We’re really going to see some considerable hardship in these small rural communities once this snow begins to melt,” he said. He urged local communities and public agencies like school districts to start planning now.

The snowpack in the southern Sierra measured Monday at more than 300% of what it normally is on April 1 of a given year, according to the state Department of Water Resources. The statewide average came in at 237% above normal.

So much snow has piled atop Alpine County Unified School District’s Bear Valley Elementary School, which sits at 7,000 feet elevation, that it’s been closed over fears the roof may cave in. Its seven students are attending classes at a local library.

“The fact is there is quite a lot of water in the water cannon that is pointed west in the Sierra. And these storms just keep loading it up,” Mount said.

Tulare County in the southern Central Valley, where flooding caused by breached levees soaked the unincorporated towns of Allensworth and Alpaugh last month, has the most schools in the state classified at high flood risk — 35 — according to FEMA data that was last updated in 2009.

Mount specifically singled out the cities of Visalia in Tulare County and Firebaugh and Mendota in western Fresno County as places that should expect to be hit hard.

“Mendota, Firebaugh, places like that are on the San Joaquin River and have schools within them, they’re in deep trouble,” Mount said.

Data show all six schools in the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District are at high risk of flooding. Levees in the area have a safety rating of unsatisfactory, State Department of Water Resources records show. Those levees, built to prevent the overflow of rivers, are “in pretty bad shape. They’ve been severely neglected over the last 100 years, certainly in the last 50 years,” Mount said.

The school district is preparing staff, students and their families for the serious possibility of a flood. Superintendent Roy Mendiola has encouraged families and staff to prepare a “go bag” with their most important documents. In the event of an evacuation, students will be shuttled to a produce warehouse on high ground on the other side of town. The school district has the largest fleet of buses and vans in the region, so it also plans to help evacuate local residents.

Local agencies, including the city of Firebaugh and its police department, have been key partners in preparing for a potential disaster. Mendiola is getting more guidance from officials at Planada Elementary School District across the valley, which was recently damaged by flooding. But the state hasn’t stepped up with any sort of guidance about how to prepare, said Mendiola. Rather, he’s gotten emails about how to deal with damage in the aftermath of storms. “It wasn’t so much, ‘Here’s what you could do to prepare a plan for an emergency like that,’” said Mendiola.

In Tulare County on the eastern side of the valley, Visalia Unified School District, 38 of 42 schools are at high or moderate flooding danger, data show. Ten are at high risk. A district spokesperson, Cristina Gutierrez, declined to make officials available for an interview. In an email, she wrote that the district is in “constant touch” with Visalia city officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors river levels.

Tulare County Superintendent of Schools Tim Hire said school officials in the county are “carefully watching and making decisions day by day” about how to proceed. “They all want students in the classroom, but only if it is safe.”

There is no question that floods will come, said Carlos Molina, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Hanford.

Melting snow will create double the amount of water leaving the mountains than reservoirs from Yosemite in the north to Lake Isabella in the south can hold at one time, he said.

Which rivers will flood? “Take your pick,” Molina said, rattling off names: The Kern. The King. The San Joaquin.

“They will be having problems from now until later this summer.”

The Pajaro flood

When a 75-year-old levee holding back the Pajaro River from the unincorporated northern Monterey County community of Pajaro ruptured March 11, floodwater poured into the center of the farming town. Homes, businesses, and Pajaro Middle School stood in its path. Water entered the school’s classrooms and submerged its grounds.

When State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond visited the school on March 24 some classrooms remained wet. Mud caked walkways inside and out.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, center, tours Pajaro Middle School on March 11, 2023.
Thomas Peele
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, center, tours Pajaro Middle School on March 11, 2023.

Members of Thurmond’s staff wore knee boots as they toured the building. Pajaro Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said cleanup hadn’t started because insurance adjusters hadn’t completed their work. At that point, it was nearly two weeks since the flood and there were concerns mold would worsen the damage. Thurmond, standing before television cameras, called an executive of the school’s insurance company and left a voicemail urging the claim be expedited.

While praising relief workers and expressing concern for displaced families, at one point making a recorded statement to them in Spanish, Thurmond, a former member of the state Assembly, appeared to lack basic knowledge about the situation.

Asked at a news conference how many other schools in the state were prone to similar flooding as Pajaro Middle, he didn’t provide a number. Thurmond responded by describing the many threats schools face. “Before we were talking about floods, we were talking about wildfires, power-safety shut-offs and, of course, we’re still overcoming the impacts of a pandemic. Sadly, it’s become the new normal for there to be school disruption.”

In an email, Scott Roark, spokesperson, said the state Department of Education is in regular communication with other state agencies and the National Weather Service about school flooding risks.

Amidst a series of back-to-back atmospheric rivers in March, the department alerted 489 schools in 10 counties on preparing for and dealing with flood hazards based on models developed by the state’s Department of Water Resources. The information was distributed through local county offices of education, said Abel Guillen, deputy superintendent of public instruction. Many schools on that list are in the Tulare Basin, which includes both Tulare and Kings counties. Schools on those lists are encouraged to update their emergency plans, check to see that they have flood insurance, inventory and photograph costly equipment, move computers from low-lying areas, begin sandbagging and strengthen contact with local emergency operations.

Overall, the FEMA data shows flood ratings for 10,628 California schools, some of them in shared buildings. Of those, 2,230 are identified with high or moderate flood risk. Of those, 398 are high risk of flooding. Another 383 are listed as having a possible flood risk, but there is not enough information to make a more exact estimate.

The risk to another 56 schools is listed as unknown because they are not covered in FEMA flood maps. All are in Alpine, Sutter and Yuba Counties. There are 7,958 schools identified as low-risk. In only three of the state’s 58 counties are all schools listed as low risk— Amador, Calaveras and San Francisco.

Data shows that some of the schools rated as high risk were built in floodways, or floodplains, or in locations where floodwaters are likely to pool. Others were built where floodwater is expected to flow across school grounds.

Of schools rated at moderate or high risk, data show 602 are marked as being at reduced risk because levees protect them. Most are in urban areas — nearly half are in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In Pajaro, the middle school is listed by FEMA as being at high risk for flooding and being in a sheeting area where water would flow over the school property. That’s what happened when the nearby levee, which was built in 1949, breached March 11.

The flood was the fourth time the town flooded since then and local officials are bitterly complaining about a lack of maintenance on the levee. The river divides Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. The Mercury News reported March 26 that Santa Cruz County spent five times more money than Monterey County did on maintaining the levee on its side of the river over the past three years. The levee breached when the river was below flood stage.

When the record snowmelt hits rivers in the months ahead the state’s levees will be severely tested, said Farshid Vahedifard, a Mississippi State University engineering professor who has extensively studied California’s system of more than 21,000 kilometers of urban and nonurban levees. Many, he said, are aging earthen berms not meant to serve as critical infrastructure.

“I won’t be surprised if I see more failures,” he told EdSource.

Mount put it succinctly: “There are only two kinds of levees,” he said. “Those that have failed and those that will fail.”

They will be severely tested around Memorial Day, Mount said, as snowmelt overwhelms the water systems just when schools are letting out at the end of the academic year and preparing for summer sessions. The ability to use schools as emergency shelters and rally points could be impeded.

In the Southern Sierra, Mount predicted, the looming disaster is “going to last months and, it may take years to recover from.”

The filthiest water imaginable

When heavy rains on Jan. 9 caused a stream to flood and a levee to break in Planada, an unincorporated Merced County community, water naturally ran to the lowest points in town — including the grounds of Planada Elementary School built in 1955 below flood level. FEMA lists the school as a high flood risk and a “special flood hazard area” where water will pond with nowhere to go.

“The filthiest water imaginable” flooded the school, said Jose Gonzalez, superintendent of the Planada Elementary School District. “There were porta-potties floating throughout the community. There were dead rodents.”

Twenty-six first- through fifth-grade classrooms were lost. So were 4,000 books. Rebuild costs, including raising the site above the floodplain, is roughly $12 million. There’s no date for work to start.

School was closed for eight days until students could attend classes in another school in town that didn’t flood.

The floodwaters came fast, Gonzalez said. But it happened when school was closed. Had the same conditions occurred on a school day, “It would have been complete chaos,” he said.

The disaster wasn’t new for Gonzalez. The school also flooded during a 2018 storm.

“They said (2018) was a 100-year flood,” Gonzalez said. Federal and state officials told him,‘“Don’t worry, it’s not going to happen again,”’ he said. “Five years later here we are.”

In 2018 the district didn’t have flood insurance. But it was able to join a joint-powers authority of other small districts to buy insurance that covered the January damage. Litigation over the levee breach is likely, he said.

The district has a soccer field and track nearby. Gonzalez said it may be lowered “with the field at the bottom with the track around the top” to serve as a “ponding basin” where floodwater could be diverted. He’s had to learn about water rights, hydraulics and meteorology — things “they don’t teach you in superintendents’ school.”

“Any time there’s a light rain I drive out to check the creek,” he said. “It’s just part of the routine.”

For decades schools in California could be built anywhere where a local district could find and afford land. If that means in the floodplain of the Pajaro River or the lowlands of Planada, then that’s where they were built.

“Finding land for new schools isn’t easy. It’s only getting harder as the cost of land increases,” said Jeffrey Vincent, of UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. “It’s not like they get the pick of the litter.”

School boards can override other local agencies on land use decisions, putting schools wherever they can acquire land.

But one district in 2018 decided not to build in a floodplain.

The Kern High School District declined to build a new school in a floodplain to serve the unincorporated town of Lamont, said Jack “Woody” Colvard, a facilities management consultant for the Kern County superintendent of schools. He previously worked for the Kern High School District, which considered several options that would allow the school to be built in Lamont, but none of them were practical.

One idea was to buy 180 acres for a 120-acre campus — the other 60 acres would provide dirt that would allow the campus to be raised above the floodplain. Just the grading alone on a project like that would run $5 million. It also considered building canals that would allow floodwaters to move around the school, Colvard said.

These options would turn the school into an “island.” That’s a problem because schools shouldn’t merely be safe in an emergency, Colvard said, they should also be accessible places for the community to find food, water and other crucial resources at such times.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, notes that the state treats schools as the “backbone” of emergency response efforts in the event of an earthquake. As the Legislature crafts another state bond measure for school facilities, there have been discussions about how California can also prepare school facilities for the effects of climate changes that have increased the risk of wildfires, heat waves and flooding.

“We’ve been having ongoing discussions about how the bond should acknowledge the realities of climate change,” he said.

One provision that may be added to the bond measure would authorize the state to acquire portable classrooms so that schools can have them quickly in the event of a disaster.

But even a school labeled by FEMA to be a low flooding risk has suffered from a recent major flood.

The tiny Sunol Glenn Unified School District nestled in the hills of eastern Alameda County has one school. A stream, Sinbad Creek runs behind it. Superintendent Molleen Barnes said she never really gave the creek much thought, other than asking local officials to clear out some branches that had gotten stuck under a nearby bridge that passed over it.

The creek usually “ran at a trickle” at a depth of 15 to 17 inches, she said.

Then the night of Dec. 31 and into New Year’s Day, Barnes started getting texts from parents telling her the school grounds were flooding. As an atmospheric river unleashed torrential rains, Sinbad Creek had jumped its banks, surging to 24 feet. The branches under the bridge hadn’t been cleaned out.

“Of course, we’d been in a drought and this hadn’t been on our radar,” Barnes told EdSource. When the water receded the school grounds were covered in 18 inches of mud. Three modular classrooms were knocked off their foundations. Fences toppled. A classroom and an office were damaged. The entire building had to be assessed for mold.

The district didn’t have flood insurance. The damage was estimated at about $1.8 million, Barnes said.

“The school’s 100 years old and it never flooded, “Barnes said. “This isn’t something we’d even thought about.

“Until now.”

EdSource is a California-based independent nonprofit organization founded in 1977, dedicated to providing analysis on key education issues facing the state and nation.