A California city’s desperate struggle to save itself from flooding
- US News
- March 19, 2023
- No Comment
ALLENSWORTH, California —
Last week, as it rained for days and floodwaters spilled onto the streets, Allensworth residents grabbed shovels and pushed on tractors.
The makeshift barriers they erected from sandbags, gravel, and loose sand held back the water.
Now the town of nearly 600 people northwest of Bakersfield faces another threat — a broken levee and another storm expected in a few days.
As of Saturday morning, residents were back at work shoveling sand onto a 3-foot high berm.
Allensworth, the state’s first city founded by Black Americans, is now a predominantly Hispanic community. Some residents work on nearby farms, planting and harvesting almonds, pistachios, grapes, and pomegranates.
Local leaders say they need help from county, state and local officials to protect their city.
“It’s becoming a major crisis for our community,” said Kayode Kadara, 69, who has been working with neighbors to defend against the floods. “We have many concerned people in this community. And we all gather to help one another.”
The low-lying unincorporated community lies in the Tulare Lake watershed, which was drained for agriculture in the early 1900s. Recent storms have pushed floodwaters through canals and ditches and over farmland to the old lake bed.
On Saturday, a helicopter flew over the broken dam, dumping heaps of sand to try to plug it while a crew used machinery to plug the leak, said Jack Mitchell, chief of the Deer Creek Flood Control District.
He said the dam is almost fully repaired but flooding is still a major problem.
Mitchell said he believes the dam breach was caused by someone intentionally cutting through the earth barrier with machinery.
“They did it with a backhoe with a big skip loader. We tracked it down,” Mitchell said. “We know who did it.”
Mitchell said he hopes the US Army Corps of Engineers or other agencies step in to “take command” and help the area “get rid of this flood.”
“We need some help from above because the water from another stream is just getting there and it’s going to hit us hard,” he said.
Some landowners have tried to keep floodwaters off their lands, Mitchell said, including one who used a large device to block a canal.
“They just don’t want to give up any terrain, but they’d rather flood everywhere except where it’s supposed to go,” Mitchell said.
More than a dozen local residents stood chatting beside a drain-swollen ditch. Beside them was a gravel wall they had built two days earlier near the entrance to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
In the distance, a red emergency helicopter flew back and forth, apparently dropping tons of sand to repair the broken dike.
The churning brown water had sunk a few feet below the berm, but residents said they were worried they might have to be evacuated when the next tidal wave arrives. They said a few families had already packed up and left their low-lying homes.
Kadara’s son Tekoah said more than 100 residents met at the elementary school on Friday night to discuss plans to prevent a disaster.
“We only talk about how to save our community because no one is coming to help us,” said Kadara, 41, executive director of Allensworth Community Development Corp.
“We need makeshift armor immediately,” Kadara said. “We must prevent the water from entering the city.”
Floodwater from the White River has flown past the city, and Kadara said people are also concerned about spilling water from Lake Success.
When residents saw water rushing toward the community on Thursday, they said they used sandbags, rocks and plywood to plug the flow through two culverts along Highway 43 next to the BNSF train tracks.
“We actually did a good job of temporarily resolving an issue. But for some reason, the railroad lifted the lockdown,” Kadara said.
Kayode Kadara said the BNSF Railway sent contractors who came with machines and removed the sandbags and plywood.
He said he’s concerned community residents aren’t getting the help they need to keep themselves safe.
“They would not allow that water to enter a white city,” Kadara said as she stood beside the flood-swollen ditch where water flowed through the canal beneath the road.
Local residents said that when they initially worked to plug the culvert, they took with them some rocks piled up next to the railroad tracks, but a crew told them to stop. So they brought their own sandbags and plywood to erect the barriers.
Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said local residents had trespassed on railway property and their actions had endangered the railway infrastructure. “That wasn’t the right approach,” Kent said.
She said railroad officials were concerned that plugging the culverts would wash water onto the railroad property, “and we could have lost a track there.”
“I just think they put a lot of people in danger by doing what they did that night,” Kent said. “I totally understand and understand what they are trying to do, but maybe they should focus on protecting their property and dealing with sandbags.”
She said BNSF is open to ideas from the community and is also working with the county and state to protect railroad infrastructure.
“It slowed the flow of water to their tracks, for goodness sake. How could that be dangerous?” said Kadara.
Kadara, a retired regional director of the US Postal Service, works as a consultant at a local non-profit organization called Allensworth Progressive Assn., which directs community projects.
He said Allensworth urgently needs help from county, state and local flood control officials. Agricultural landowners also need to be part of the discussion so they can help divert floodwaters away from the community, he said.
The community has a long history of dealing with flooding.
Jose “Chepo” Gonzales, 50, said he remembered the 1979 floods when he was 7 years old.
Wearing rubber boots, his father waded through the water and picked him up to join others in the back of a dump truck.
His father had stayed behind to try to protect their home, ramming an old Plymouth to patch a leak in the canal bank where men were piling up rock and earth, Gonzales recalled.
Gonzales said those repairs are still visible as a bulge in the levee.
“I have to do it like my dad did,” said Gonzales, who used a small tractor to move sand to help build a berm.
He said he plans to load his livestock onto a trailer and take them to a sister’s house upstairs. Other people in the community have goats, pigs, and chickens.
Raymond Strong, a resident who once played for the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL, also remembers 1979 when his grandfather died in the floods along with another man.
“It’s really scary,” Strong said. “If the water really comes, it will uproot people.”
He said he plans to stay and hopes the city will get the resources it needs.
“Thank God we have our neighbors,” Strong said. “It’s amazing to see them coming together.”
Under clear skies, as the residents stood and talked by the flowing moat, Kayode Kadara pointed to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.
In the spring, the historically deep snow melts and falls to the bottom of the valley.
“Once it warms up and starts flowing, we have a big challenge,” he said. “We’re looking at two to three months more of what’s coming up right now.”