Bay Area scrambles to evacuate homeless residents as major storm bears down


As the Bay Area braced for what could be one of the worst storms in years, public officials — including San Jose’s new mayor — and teams of volunteers scrambled to warn homeless residents camped along the region’s waterways to leave before the rivers and creeks overflow, potentially turning deadly.

The danger was especially pronounced in San Jose, where more than 5,000 people live outside, and many sleep beside the waterways that wind through the city. In an effort to prevent the tragedy of anyone getting swept away, San Jose declared a state of emergency and issued a mandatory evacuation order for people camped along rivers and creeks — but stopped short of forcibly removing those who refused to leave.

“We don’t anticipate widespread flooding (throughout the city), what we are really worried about is the waterways and our unhoused residents near the creeks and rivers, where there’s a serious risk,” Mayor Matt Mahan, still in his first week leading the Bay Area’s largest city, said during a news conference at Tully Library near Coyote Creek — where dozens of people live in tents along the water.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. A ruthless winter storm bore down on the Bay Area and Northern California on Wednesday, prompting emergency proclamations, school closures and multiple hazard warnings of potential flooding, debris flows and severe winds. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

A body was found in Penitencia Creek on Sunday morning, following the region’s last big storm, Mahan said earlier this week. The medical examiner’s office has not released the person’s identity or cause of death, and it’s unclear if they were homeless.

The city doesn’t have a total count of how many people live along its waterways, but Mahan estimated it could be a few thousand.

While the area near the library attracted significant attention, with the mayor and Councilman Bien Doan warning people of the coming storm, many residents at less visible encampments along the creek said Wednesday they didn’t know about the evacuation order. Volunteers jumped into action to close the gaps left by the city’s efforts, but they struggled to convince some people to leave.

And though the Red Cross opened a new emergency shelter Wednesday at Seven Trees Community Center in San Jose — bringing the total number of available cold-weather beds to 230 — it’s not nearly enough for everyone.

Clusters of tents belonging to homeless residents line the banks of Coyote Creek near Tully Road on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. A ruthless winter storm bore down on the Bay Area and Northern California on Wednesday, prompting emergency proclamations, school closures and multiple hazard warnings of potential flooding, debris flows and severe winds. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“For now, this is going to have to do,” said Pastor Ralph Olmos, president and CEO of San Jose nonprofit Lighthouse Food Rescue and Distribution. “We’re going to have to do as best as we can to save whatever lives we can.”

Other cities around the Bay Area also were ramping up efforts to get unhoused people out of the storm’s path. Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe hit the streets Wednesday to warn people about the storm and tell them local community centers and the library have extended their hours. Tri Delta Transit shuttles were available to take unhoused people to those temporary shelters for free. Hayward secured extra hotel rooms for unhoused residents and planned to turn a community center into an emergency shelter. In Oakland, the city also was working on opening extra emergency shelters, said spokesperson Jean Walsh.

Olmos pulled up to San Jose’s Coyote Creek in a 17-seat van Wednesday afternoon, hoping to evacuate people camped near Olinder Park to an emergency shelter. At least a dozen tents and make-shift shacks line that stretch of the creek bed, some just feet from the water’s edge. Many are accessible only via precarious bridges made of plywood or tree trunks laid across the creek.

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Jason Prieto, 39, wanted to evacuate with his boyfriend and six rescue cats, but he didn’t have carriers to transport all the felines to the shelter. He hopped in the van anyway, hoping outreach workers could find extra carriers for him. Prieto was worried about the steep embankment he lives on giving way and sliding into the creek.

But despite the van’s empty seats and the many people in harm’s way along the creek bed, just one other person joined Prieto in the van.

About two miles down the creek, near Keyes Street and Senter Road, volunteers also were met with ambivalence as they urged people to evacuate. As the murky water rushed by their campsites, some people were scrambling to pack up their cars and leave. Others were enjoying instant noodles for lunch and seemed in no hurry.

When Lisa, a formerly homeless volunteer who declined to give her last name, warned one man about the coming storm and evacuation order, he glanced doubtfully at the sky. “Really?” he asked. “Today?”

Clusters of tents belonging to homeless residents line the banks of Coyote Creek near Tully Road on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. A ruthless winter storm bore down on the Bay Area and Northern California on Wednesday, prompting emergency proclamations, school closures and multiple hazard warnings of potential flooding, debris flows and severe winds. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Farther down Coyote Creek, Pedro Reyes said he doesn’t plan on moving his tent, even though he’s worried about trees falling — several already came down during the violent weather on New Year’s Eve. And yet another powerful atmospheric river storm is expected this weekend.

“I will stay,” he said. “I live here. I have all my stuff here.”

Councilman Doan estimated about half of the people he encountered living along creeks were heeding warnings to evacuate.

“They’ve built their home with all their belongings,” he said. “It is extremely difficult to let go.”

People were not being forcefully removed from waterways as of Wednesday afternoon, but the emergency declaration gives the city that power if needed, said Rachel Davis, a spokesperson for the mayor. San Jose Police Department Deputy Chief Brian Shab said that they don’t expect it will come to that.

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“If it gets to the point that it is a life-safety issue, I’ll be honest, it is difficult for even us to get back in there,” Shab said during Wednesday’s news conference. “It is just us being there to encourage and show the seriousness of the situation. And help them get out.”

Mahan said city officials also will be out through Thursday morning to monitor the situation along the area’s creeks.

Paola Rodriguez, who has been living in a tent along Coyote Creek near Tully Road for the past four months, tries to decide what to bring when she evacuates later to a nearby library, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2022, in San Jose, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Paola Rodriguez and her boyfriend, Jorge, live roughly 50 feet from Coyote Creek in a ramshackle home constructed with wood and tarps. The couple was still recovering from the New Year’s Eve storm when many of their personal belongings got soaked and had to be thrown out.

On Wednesday, they decided to heed the warnings and move to higher ground.

“I’m just waiting for my other cat to come in so I can lock him up and take him,” said Rodriguez. “We’re just trying to get out.”

Staff writer Judith Prieve contributed to this story.

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