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How a Central Valley school district prepares for the terrifying threat of disastrous flooding

City manager Ben Gallegos stands with his hands in his coat pockets, looking out over the San Joaquin River.
Emma Gallegos
Firebaugh city manager Ben Gallegos checks on the levels of the San Joaquin River just outside his office in Firebaugh where six of its schools are at high risk of flooding.

This story was originally published by EdSource.

Every day Daniel Barragan drives on a bridge over the San Joaquin River, looking for any worrisome sign that it could be rising. He points out an entire city park that has already been swallowed by its waters, but he’s seen worse.

“Things are low, but that can change overnight,” said Barragan, the director of maintenance, operations and transportation for Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School.

Back-to-back rainstorms have left the Central Valley town of Firebaugh soggy and the river that runs through it swollen. The river isn’t as high as it was two weeks ago when 50,000 sandbags were placed on its banks and residents were warned they may have to evacuate. But local officials don’t plan on letting down their guard.

Schools often play an outsize role in rural communities, and that’s true in Firebaugh, a community of 9,000 that’s about 40 miles west of Fresno. Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School has stepped up to play a key role in preparing the community for the possibility of a disastrous flood.

Six of seven schools in Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School are located in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers high-risk territory — a distinction that it shares with about 4 percent of schools in California. That is due to the unsatisfactory condition of local levees, according to state data.

Like most of the city, the schools are built along riverbanks. As Firebaugh goes, so go its schools.

A chain link fence separates a muddy dirt road and green field at Hazel M. Bailey Primary School.
Emma Gallegos
School officials say that the school at the greatest risk in Firebaugh is Hazel M. Bailey Primary School.

Superintendent Roy Mendiola finds himself walking a fine line between ensuring the community is ready to face a terrifying threat but without creating unnecessary anxiety.

“How do you prepare for what you know is coming? How do you provide some level of calmness?” said Mendiola. “Because every time there’s rain, people are asking me, ‘Are we going to flood out?’”

Rain isn’t the biggest threat. Water experts warn that as a record snowpack in the Sierra melts, it will unleash a deluge in the Central Valley. That poses an existential threat for Firebaugh.

“Well, we’re worried, and more since the school is close to the river,” Patricia Hidalgo, a mother of three, said, in Spanish. “If the river swells, it will arrive at the school.”

The modern city of Firebaugh grew up around the river. The city’s namesake, Andrew Firebaugh, established a trading post and ferry on the San Joaquin River in 1854 that catered to easterners traveling to California.

Today the city, like most of the Central Valley, has an economy centered on agriculture. The region was once known for its cantaloupe crop. Today one of the largest employers is the tomato-packaging facility TomatoTek. The residents are largely farmworkers. About a third live in poverty and the city’s median household income is under $37,000, according to census data.

The San Joaquin River descends from headwaters in the Sierra Nevada before crossing the broad, flat expanse of the Central Valley. When snowmelt becomes a deluge, this distance may give Firebaugh several crucial hours of preparation.

The river makes roughly the shape of an “L.” Firebaugh is just northwest of the crook where the river changes course and runs toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and ultimately the San Francisco Bay.

The river rose dangerously high during a particularly wet season in 2017, and many remember when the city was evacuated in 1997 during a record El Niño season.

One of those locals is City Manager Ben Gallegos. He commissioned a 2020 study about how the city could mitigate its flood risk. That helped pinpoint the lowest, flood-prone spots along the river, which helped officials to decide where to lay sandbags when the waters rose a few weeks ago.

The study recommended shoring up the levees in a project that would also create a recreational path. Projects that have multiple uses are more likely to attract state and federal funding. So far the project, which Gallegos estimates would cost at least $140 million, has not received the state or federal funding that a city with a $4 million annual budget would need.

In the meantime, local officials are vigilant and the district is in daily contact with them. Police officers visually checked on water levels hourly when river levels rose dangerously high in March. Gallegos has a program that shows precisely how much water is flowing into the San Joaquin River from all the reservoirs, tributaries and canals.

Ben Gallegos, sitting at a desk, points to a diagram on his computer screen.
Emma Gallegos
Firebaugh City Manager Ben Gallegos has a program that allows him to track the San Joaquin River’s volume. It can handle up to 4,500 cubic feet per second. Recently it was hovering at about 4,400 cubic feet per second.

Firebaugh could face a few different scenarios. A likely one is that melting snow will barrel down the Sierra at levels that reservoirs and dams can’t handle. A breached levee immediately upstream would create an emergency situation that would require swift evacuation.

If there’s one advantage to this kind of emergency, it’s that communities have time to prepare, said Jeffrey Mount, a geomorphologist and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who studies flood and water management. There is so much snow in the Sierra that it’s obvious that heavy flooding will hit in late May or early June.

“Usually, flood disasters are something we could maybe predict a week in advance,” he said.

The school district is focusing on what it can do to prepare not just its employees, students and families, but the entire community. The first step was creating a plan to safely evacuate the city.

As the owner of the largest transportation fleet in town, the district will play a key role in any evacuation. Drivers are on call and the district keeps its fleet of 11 buses and 10 vans fully fueled. Students are the first priority, but it plans to transport community members, too.

“We’re ready on a minute’s notice to start busing parents, community members,” said Barragan.

Sandbags piled in three rows on the banks of a river.
Emma Gallegos
Local and state officials piled 50,000 sandbags along the low-lying banks of the San Joaquin River when rising levels threatened to overtake Firebaugh.

The plan is to evacuate everyone to Westside Produce, a warehouse on higher ground. Depending on the circumstances, buses may head straight to the warehouse or parents may have a short window to pick up their students from school.

The district stocked up on bottled water and snacks for the event of an evacuation, said Debby Anderson, the supervisor of food services. Heaters are available to warm the warehouse, Mendiola said.

Since March’s heavy storms, the district has served a crucial role in city communications. Mendiola has been sending a steady stream of messages to its employees and families. That includes a flood warning notice to the low-lying areas. He also exhorted the community to prepare a flood kit with important paperwork, medicine, extra clothes and a blanket.

When he started hearing that there was anxiety about crews that had arrived to sandbag the lowest points of the river, he sent employees and families local news stories that explained what was happening.

“At one point, I thought I was going overboard,” Mendiola said. But he checked in with staff and administrators, and the messages seemed to be alleviating rather than stoking panic.

Parent Crystal Santiago said she has appreciated the communication and learning about the district’s detailed evacuation plan.

“Obviously, it is scary, but I feel like we’re going to be OK,” she said.

Employees are preparing too. They are encouraged to keep first-aid kits and grab-and-go bags in their car trunks. Updated rosters are important for headcount. The district has identified which employees will be most helpful in a disaster, such as those who live outside of town or don’t have family members to care for.

The district is preparing for students who need medication or have other health care concerns, said Michelle Nicoletti, the district’s nurse. School employees are trying to prepare students and answer questions frankly without worrying them.

“We don’t want to project our fears onto them,” Nicoletti said.

Amid this planning, Mendiola discovered the district’s previous plan in the case of a flood was “vague.” That surprised him, since Firebaugh has faced flood threats before. The district has received little instruction from the state about preparing for a flood.

“I don’t recall seeing those steps to follow, a guide of any sort,” Mendiola said. He received warnings against driving through puddles and information about how to make damage claims “but not necessarily the things that we were doing to make sure that people are comfortable.”

Instead, he has turned to a former colleague, Jose Gonzalez, superintendent of Planada Elementary School in Merced County, whose schools experienced serious flooding in January. Those conversations impressed upon Mendiola the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

It’s not an easy process, but asking the hard questions is exactly what Mount said local officials should be doing now: “What is your disaster plan? And most importantly, embedded in all of that disaster planning, is: what is your recovery plan?”

Now that Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified has fleshed out its plans for the evacuation, it is focusing on its facilities and the aftermath of a flood. The district is working on protecting its records in case of a flood, Mendiola said. The school may construct its own levee to protect the school most at risk, Bailey Primary School, Barragan said.

District employees are looking over the paperwork for FEMA assistance and beginning to fill it out so they don’t have to do it in the midst of an emergency.

The district recently came to an uncomfortable realization: The district’s access to joint services with other districts in a joint powers authority doesn’t offer flood coverage. Mendiola was shocked that it wasn’t a state requirement, especially for a district like his — especially considering how much is regulated in schools.

He’s hoping that the district doesn’t face exorbitant prices as it looks into getting coverage, especially since 88% of its students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged by the state.

“We’re not an affluent community,” he said.

Emma Gallegos covers education in California's Central Valley for EdSource.