25 years ago today San Francisquito Creek flooded

by Harold Schapelhouman on February 3, 2023

Heavy, fierce rains on February 2  and 3, 1998, combined with high (king) tides resulted in 1,700 properties in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and Palo Alto flooded and damaged along the San Francisquito Creek, causing $40 million dollars in damage, but fortunately no life loss or significant injuries.

Significant flooding along the creek has been recorded over a dozen times since 1862 when saw mills were washed away, and Searsville residents abandoned their homes in fear for their lives.

Prior to the 1998 deluge, heavy rains in December of 1955 culminated into what was known as the Christmas Eve Flood that resulted in 650 homes damaged for an estimated $1.1 million in losses. It started when a levee failure impacted 1,200 acres of residential and commercial properties along with another 70 acres of farm land.

The 45-square-mile mountainous watershed encompasses the Palo Alto Hills, Portola Valley and Woodside from Skyline Blvd to Highway 280 and serves as a water catch basin that then drains downhill into San Francisquito Creek. The Creek encompasses another five-square-miles between Highway 280 and the San Francisco Bay, where portions of this area also serve as a flood plain.

In 1930, San Francisquito Creek was “channeled” from Highway 101 to the Bay. Essentially, this was done to accommodate adjacent land use needs during a property swap between the two counties. The City of Palo Alto was able to develop a golf course and municipal airport because of this transaction.

The Stanford University Golf Course is home to the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Creek monitoring flow gauge that has been operating since the 1930’s. In 1955, the creek monitor captured a record breaking 5,600 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of water coming down the Creek.

That record was broken in 1998 when the USGS Gauge had readings between 6,500 and 8,000 CFM of Creek flow. During both the 1955 and 1998 events, emergency calls for help and assistance started to pour in just before midnight as the Creek over-banked and flooded everything in its path under the complicating darkness of night.

The confluence of the Matadero and San Francisquito Creek’s occurs just below Highway 280 and directly above the residential neighborhood known as Stanford Weekend Acres, located along Alpine Road.

After the 1998 flooding event, this area became known as the “trigger” because if over-banking was occurring in Weekend Acres, some 30 to 45 minutes later, it would also occur down stream at various points.

The first indicator of trouble occurred just before midnight in 1998, when emergency calls for assistance started coming in from residents who lived in the Stanford Weekend Acres neighborhood.

Residents first reported that San Francisquito Creek was overflowing causing a building to separate from its foundation, float down the street and temporarily be lodged in some trees. Moments later, another resident called saying she was trapped on the second floor of her home that was being pummeled by debris from the creek and that there was at least three feet of water blocking her ability to evacuate.

The Fire District’s Water Rescue Team had rescued 14 people and several hundred animals from the flood waters of Yuba City and County only the year before (1997). The Team and its equipment were pre-staged and ready for deployment, but no one could believe that the first call would come from upstream at Weekend Acres.

The Water Rescue Team located the home that was surrounded by fast moving water. The water was indeed at least three feet deep with debris striking the wall of the home. Firefighters worked from adjacent Alpine Road, which was uphill, then down to where they used a long pole to hook the structure and “bridge” the gap crossing the water as a female resident, on command from Firefighters, appeared in the doorway. Firefighters quickly performed a “grab and go” technique with a rope line pulling them all back up the embankment and to safety.

As the Firefighters completed that rescue they were alerted to another problem only a block away in which an elderly man was trapped in his home completely surrounded by moving water. A small building had come free from its foundation only a few yards away, so a rope line maneuver was ruled out. Using their inflatable boat, Firefighters paddled to the home, picked up the resident and brought him to dry ground.

As the Water Rescue Team packed up its gear, calls for assistance were coming in all along San Francisquito Creek. An earthen embankment along Bay Laurel Avenue was reported collapsing into the creek (pictured tk), water was pouring from the Creek across El Camino Real and threatening to flood the auto dealerships. But most concerning were life safety incidents: Occupied vehicles were stranded in a river of water running down the 1900 Block of University (Whiskey Gulch) as water overflowed from the Creek at the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto border and down toward Highway 101. At that juncture, a new three-foot continuous center divider and sound walls trapped and channeled the water both North and South, forcing the Highway Patrol to close the South bound lanes due to flooding.

Water from the Creek was also over-banking all along West Bayshore in East Palo Alto, and flooding a high occupancy apartment building located along the freeway as the water trapped by the sound walls started to accumulate. At one point, waters even reached East O’Keefe Street where it flooded the sub-surface parking garages of several of apartment buildings, as if they were swimming pools.

As the Water Rescue Team worked its way down and into East Palo Alto, other Menlo Park Firefighters began to use their large fire apparatus for water rescues on University Avenue, specifically for people trapped in vehicles who had obliviously exited the freeway, only to find themselves in a river almost two feet deep at points.

Both of the District’s large Aerial Ladder Trucks were specifically called for response to West Bayshore Avenue, where dozens of residents at a time were helped up onto the apparatus and driven out of the flood inundation area.

As the Water Rescue Team arrived, one of the Ladder Trucks got into water so deep it stalled and could not be re-started. The rising water shorted the electrical system causing the mechanical siren to go off until Firefighters, working under the water, were able to disconnect the Trucks batteries.

Menlo Park Firefighters using their inflatable boats, evacuated the remaining residents of the apartment complexes to higher ground, where school buses eventually arrived at day break, taking them to a temporary shelter. In total 325 people were evacuated in East Palo Alto.

The Water Rescue Team patrolled the Creek until called out to the Mosley Slew located on the Northside of the Dumbarton Bridge. The levee along the Bay had failed creating a water risk to the Highway 84 approach to the Dumbarton Bridge. Using the District’s Air Boat, the gap was temporarily filled with sand bags, and the slew pumped out until a more permanent solution could be made.

Photo captions: Top — Captain Jeff Schreiber, with Menlo Fires Water Rescue Team, surveys the San Francisquito Creek from the rear desk of a home a woman was rescued from in Stanford Weekend Acres. Note the debris trapped in the V of the tree indicating the height of the water the night of the rescue. Middle — Captain Jeff Schreiber surveys a building that separated from its foundation and floated down the street until it lodged in a tree in Stanford Weekend Acres. Bottom — Residents along Bay Laurel Drive in Menlo Park had to pay for damages and repair to the San Francisquito Creek wall, when the City Under the leadership of City Manager Jan Dolan, refused to “declare a local emergency”, despite a record $40 million in damages to the region caused by the the flooding from the  February 3, 1998 storm event.

Harold Schapelhouman, retired Fire Chief of Menlo Park Fire Protection District, actively participated in rescue efforts during the 1998 storm.


G. Andeen February 03, 2023 at 7:07 pm

Upstream runoff must be diverted to cisterns, drywells, etc rather than into storm drains that deliver the water quickly to the creek. Holding back the water would also recharge the ground water.

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Ole Agesen February 04, 2023 at 3:24 pm

I lived in Oak Creek Apartments at the time and remember waking waking up very early that morning. At dawn I looked at the creek level and it was quite close to the top of the bank.

Then I bicycled to work at Sun Microsystems by Dumbarton. To my surprise, I was the only person in the building for several hours. I later learned that 101 had flooded, causing smaller streets to jam up. Terry, who lived in Menlo Park, spent hours (!) driving to work. I think he had a cup of coffee and decided it was time to start the journey home.

By the end of the day the rain had mostly stopped and the bike ride home was uneventful.

P.S. Those flow rates, e.g., 6500 CFM, should actually CF/s. Yes, per second!

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Jake February 09, 2023 at 4:13 pm

The guy who drove the ladder truck into the deep water eventually became a division chief lol

Unfortunately so many resources were focused on alpine only 2 engines were available for all of EPA with the most damage between 101 and the creek

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