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'The water is not safe': San Jose, Calif., residents return to flooded homes

Some residents returned home to sort through waterlogged furniture, toys and clothing after being abruptly evacuated when a surging creek carrying engine fuel and sewage water inundated thousands of homes in San Jose.

San Jose mayor acknowledges residents weren't properly notified to evacuate during flood emergency

Homes are seen submerged in water after an overflowed Coyote Creek flooded nearby neighborhoods and prompted an evacuation in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Some residents returned home to sort through waterlogged furniture, toys and clothing after being abruptly evacuated when a surging creek carrying engine fuel and sewage water inundated thousands of homes in San Jose.

With water levels from Coyote Creek receding late Wednesday, officials said some of the 14,000 evacuated residents would be allowed to return home, although an evacuation order remained for parts of the city. Authorities warned residents to be careful about hygiene and handling food that may have come into contact with flood water.

"The water is not safe," San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. "There is contamination in this water and the contamination runs the gamut."

Residents in knee-high rubber boots waddled through inundated street to get to their homes, passing by cars submerged in muddy water.

The region got a brief break from persistent downpours, but flood warnings were in place through Saturday because waterways were overtaxed.

At least 225 residents were taken to dry land Tuesday and rinsed with soap and water to prevent them from being sickened by floodwaters that had travelled through engine fuel, garbage, debris and over sewer lines, said Fire Captain Mitch Matlow. No major injuries were reported.

"The water started to seep in the driveway, and then it started to creep up into the front door. It kept getting worse and worse," said Alex Hilario, who walked in knee-high water to get to his car and leave.

Firefighters with the San Jose Fire Department extract residents stranded by the flood after heavy rains overflowed nearby Coyote Creek in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Victor Chen, his two children, ages eight and 10, and his wife evacuated Tuesday night and returned to their home on 21st Street earlier Wednesday.

"It's really tough to see. A home is all we worked for, and our family is all here," Chen, 42, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "And we had to leave it behind when the water was rising."

Toys, extra mattresses, a TV, bikes and clothing were all ruined after the garage, dining room and one of the children's bedrooms were flooded.

Liccardo acknowledged that the city failed to properly notify residents to evacuate during a flood emergency early Wednesday when some people said they got their first notice by seeing firefighters in boats in the neighborhood.

"If the first time a resident is aware that they need to get out of their home is when they see a firefighter in a boat, that's a failure," Liccardo said at a news conference. "We are assessing what happened in that failure."

Liccardo declined to go into detail, saying there would be time for reflection after the emergency was over.

Reservoir gushing water

Meanwhile several other communities downstream from a Northern California reservoir gushing water for the first time in 20 years braced for flash floods and evacuations. The surge released from Don Pedro Dam into the Tuolumne River in the foothills east of Modesto was expected to reach overtopped levees later in the day.

Katie Whitley, who manages the Driftwood Mobile Home Park in Modesto, said residents nearest the river have been moving their trailers out since the start of the weekend.

"We're just holding our own," Whitley told the Los Angeles Times. "That's what we have to do. You just have to hope for the best. But you can expect it when you live on the river."

The water released from Don Pedro is expected to reach its peak along a stretch near Vernalis that's already at danger stage, said Tim Daly, a spokesman for the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services. The water isn't expected to spill over the levees but rather increase pressure on them, causing possible breaks in any weak places.

The Anderson Dam in Santa Clara County reached capacity over the weekend, and after heavy rain, it began overflowing into the Coyote Creek.

James Fipps takes his dogs for a walk on a makeshift raft in Lakeport, Calif. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/Associated Press)

Atmospheric rivers

The rains were the latest produced by a series of storms generated by so-called atmospheric rivers that dump massive quantities of Pacific Ocean water on California after carrying it aloft from as far away as Hawaii.

In the Sierra Nevada range, one of the main routes to Lake Tahoe was in danger of collapsing after a roadway shoulder gave way following heavy storms, leaving a gaping hole on part of Highway 50, Caltrans engineer Jarrett Woodruff said.

Crews opened one lane Tuesday as Caltrans workers tried to fix the road failure after numerous mudslides blocked it for days in recent weeks.

The water level rose at Lake Oroville for the first time since authorities ordered an emergency evacuation of 188,000 people more than a week ago after a damaged spillway caused flooding concerns.

The rains have saturated the once-drought stricken region and wreaked havoc for residents. At least four people have died in the storms throughout the state in the last week.

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