Thousands of people ordered to evacuate flooding in San Jose, California, Tuesday returned home Thursday amid warnings to be careful about hygiene and handling food that may have come into contact with flood water.
About two-thirds of the 14,000 evacuees were being allowed to return home while 3,800 people remain under a mandatory evacuation order issued when a creek overflowed following heavy rains and sent waist-high water into neighborhoods.
Areas that were cleared on Thursday include the Riverbend mobile home park and apartment complexes at 12th and Keyes streets. Officials said that they are in "reentry and recovery mode" and planned to focus on three mobile home parks around Oakland Road.
"The goal is to get as many people back into their homes as soon as possible," Dave Sykes, director of the Emergency Operations Center, said at a news conference.
Those who went home were sorting through waterlogged furniture, toys and clothing after the creek water carrying engine fuel and sewage swamped their homes. Officials encouraged people to presume the flood water was contaminated and to use gloves when sifting through their sodden belongings and also wash their hands often.
"The water is not safe," Mayor Sam Liccardo said. "There is contamination in this water and the contamination runs the gamut."
Besides the residents, officials also hoped to rescue more than two dozen horses from ranches if the water recedes enough.
Victor Chen, his two children, ages 8 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."
Mattresses, clothings, TVs, toys and bikes were all ruined after the garage, dining room and one of the children's bedrooms were flooded.
Eric Heckman, one of the many residents of San Jose's Julian neighborhood, returned to a similar scene. When asked how high the water rose in his yard, the homeowner replied, "Almost to my nose."
Heckman says the flood will cost him thousands of dollars that his insurance company will not cover.
"There's no contents coverage with flood insurance so all this stuff is lost," he said. "They'll rebuild the building which is nice."
Liccardo went door to door on Thursday, offering personal assistance to those hit hard. "It's painful for them and me to see what they're going through," he said.
The mayor said he is giving a health and risk checklist to homeowners on what they need to do before they go home.
"I want you to follow these steps and, if there's anything, you need call me immediately," he told one East San Jose resident.
Liccardo acknowledged that the city failed to properly notify residents to evacuate during a flood emergency 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 on Wednesday. "We are assessing what happened in that failure."
On Thursday, Santa Clara Valley Water District officials posted on their neighborhood site that they warned the city three or four hours before the flooding, but officials didn't take any action.
For his part, Liccardo declined to go into detail, saying there would be time for reflection after the emergency was over.
"I think it's not really time for the blame game, so instead of coming out with accusations — the public needs facts," he stressed.
Evacuation orders were still in place on Oakland Road and Rock Springs areas. Part of the William Street Park area was cleared for reentry, according to the mayor's office.
Flood warnings were in place until Saturday because waterways were overtaxed, and another storm was forecast Sunday.
Meanwhile, officials have closed two evacuation centers set up for residents. The centers were places where evacuated people could get food and water and rest.
Two overnight shelters remained open and people there were trying to find out if they would be allowed to go home.
A steady stream of people, like resident Marnie Scharmer, stopped by the centers dropping off donations of clothing and toys for the children.
“My heart just goes out to the victims of the flooding, so last night my son and I went through our closets and grabbed what we could to help out,” Scharmer said.
The city began alerting residents of the flood situation on Tuesday via social and mainstream media and sending emergency alerts to those who had signed up for it, said city spokesman Dave Vossbrink.
When water levels changed dramatically overnight, they sent police and firefighters door-to-door during the dramatic overnight evacuation.
"It was scary," said Irma Gonzalez, 59, whose two-story apartment complex is alongside the creek. She was awakened about 2:30 a.m. by police pounding on her door. "They were like, 'You've got to hurry up and go! Move it!'"
Gonzalez spent the night at her sister's house and said she was thankful for the wakeup call and evacuation. "It's better than to wake up and have water coming in."
For his part, Heckman added that "the water in the window" made his house resemble "an aquarium."
He said also that his family had been forced to borrow a neighbor’s kayak to get to dry land two days ago. Heckman is now clearing the muddy sandbags that he had hoped would be able to stop Coyote Creek from flooding their backyard. The bags couldn't do that.
Upstream near Senter Road, Thang Troung spent hours scooping mud out of his apartment, which backs up to the creek. The family lost their couch and even a car.
Troung’s street is still covered in mud and debris, but around the corner, city crews worked quickly to clear the road and pump water from the flooded streets back into the creek.
Several residents faulted the city for failing to provide proper warnings.
"The city dropped the ball on making sure that people were notified of the potential impact of this flood," said resident Jean-Marie White, whose house and backyard were flooded. "Nobody had any clue.''
Bob Benjamin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the water level in 30-mile long Coyote Creek reached a 100-year high during this week's storm.
Downpours in the past few weeks have saturated the once-drought-stricken region and wreaked havoc for residents. At least four people have died as a result of the storms throughout the state in the past week.
Sykes said officials first became aware of the rising water late Tuesday when firefighters began evacuating about 400 people from a low-lying residential area.
City officials did not believe the waters would spread to other neighborhoods and did not expand the evacuation orders.
Coyote Creek flooded after Anderson Dam in Santa Clara County reached capacity during heavy weekend rains.
Managers of the dam are taking advantage of a break in the storms to draw down the reservoir, which is supposed to be limited to 68 percent of capacity because of earthquake concerns but is now at 100 percent, said Jim Fiedler, a chief operating officer at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
He said it could take nine weeks to bring it down to normal levels. Inspectors in 2010 discovered the dam is vulnerable to a major quake and $400 million is being spent to make it earthquake-proof by 2024.
AP writers Kristin J. Bender and Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Scott Smith in Fresno and Amanda Lee Myers in Los Angeles contributed to this report.