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‘Where was the city?’ SF braces for another devastating storm

Flooding at Toland and Galvez has stranded a car and stopped several Muni buses in the Bayview. | Jonah Lamb/The Standard

On New Year’s Eve, it took less than half a day for Folsom Street to be transformed into a literal river. Judging by the lack of warning and help from the city, residents and business owners in the heavily flooded Mission District knew that San Francisco was unprepared for what had just hit it. 

Even worse, less than two days after extensive cleaning and pumping toxic water out of their buildings, they are bracing for an even bigger storm on Wednesday

The city “is usually proactive about this stuff,” said James Lok, who has experienced four floods in his decade of owning and operating Ed Arroyo Auto Body. “But this time, there was no sign. It was just everyone for themselves. Where was the city?” 

San Francisco, like the rest of Northern California, was slammed by an atmospheric river over the holiday weekend, and the five inches of rain that fell claimed the title of the second-rainiest day in city history. But low-lying parts of the Mission District were particularly hard hit.

Footage of Folsom Street resembling a river on Dec. 31, 2022 | Courtesy El Tepa Taqueria

When he noticed on Saturday afternoon that the rain wasn’t stopping, Lok quickly raced over to the shop from his residence in the Sunset to put up the metal flood barriers that he had ordered for exactly this type of situation. By the time he made it there, the water was already ankle-high inside. 

“What people don’t realize is it doesn’t matter how much we block out front,” Lok explained as his staff prepared for the oncoming Wednesday storm. “It’s the backup of water that isn’t able to drain into [the sewage system], plus the rain up top [which leaks from the roof] that kills us from the inside.” 

James Lok, owner of Ed Arroyo Auto Body, stands outside of his shop on Jan. 3, 2022. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

City Slams Bad Forecast

Business owners and residents on Folsom Street told The Standard that during previous downpours, that the city would normally send out ample warning notices and even put up street barricades to divert the water. 

But this time, none of that came—except for a single pickup site, with a limited supply of sandbags. 

City officials claim they were misled by the weather forecast. 

“We were under the impression [by the National Weather Service] that we could anticipate not even an inch of rain [that weekend],” Mayor London Breed said at an emergency press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “The information we had was not sufficient in helping us prepare in the capacity we needed to respond to this issue.”

The Standard reached out to the National Weather Service for comment. 

Speaking alongside the city’s fire chief, the Department of Emergency Management and Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the mayor urged residents to refrain from traveling outside once the Wednesday storm arrives and only call 911 in the event of a life-or-death emergency. 

Sandbags are laid to protect Potrero Flats, Mission from incoming heavy rainfall, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Residents and business owners that require assistance in dealing with flooding are urged to contact the non-emergency hotline 311 instead. 

San Francisco will be on flood watch from 4 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 4, until 4 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 5. 

SF’s Sewers & Storm Drains

“Everyone on this street has been clamoring for the city to do something about the sewer system for years,” said the owner of El Tepa Taqueria, who gave his name only as Joe. “It floods even when the weather isn’t as bad.” 

Since 2009, the Foster City resident has run his family’s business next door to Ed Arroyo Auto Body. He raced to his restaurant on Saturday and found it completely flooded. 

Footage inside of El Tepa Taqueria, which was flooded on Dec. 31, 2022 | Courtesy El Tepa Taqueria.

“I just don’t know how many more times we can keep doing this,” he said as customers slowly trickled in, many asking if his business was still open. 

All of New Year’s Day was spent pumping water out and sanitizing the kitchen and dining room in order to serve food again. He isn’t sure if El Tepa will open once the next storm arrives. 

“The water damage is rotting the building to the point where it’s going to be hazardous for everybody,” he said. 

According to SFPUC, which is in charge of water, power and sewer, the city’s sewer system handles roughly 80 million gallons a day of residential, commercial and industrial wastewater that is treated before being discharged into the bay or ocean. When it rains, that number can balloon up to 500 million gallons. 

Moreover, aside from older sections of Downtown Sacramento—which is also experiencing its own severe flooding—San Francisco is the only city in the state served by a sewer system that collects both wastewater and stormwater in a single set of pipes. 

An employee from Ed Arroyo Auto Shop sets up a metal flood barrier on Jan. 3, 2022. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard.

When heavy flows hit bottlenecks in the system—such as the line near Folsom Street—sewage will force itself up onto neighborhood streets. 

After a decade of hand-wringing with the Environmental Protection Agency and regional water board over whether its system was in compliance, the city was ordered to pay $600 million to upgrade the sewer system in low-lying neighborhoods such as the Mission. However, those projects are either still in the planning phase or not going to be completed until spring 2024. 

When asked about those upgrades at the Tuesday press conference, Dennis Herrera, general manager of SFPUC, only said that they were underway and that the department would be operating “out of an abundance of caution” this week. 

He urged residents to help the department clear clogged storm drains and take advantage of SFPUC’s Flood Water Management Grant Assistance Program

Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at