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Winter Journal

Volume 31, Issue 4

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Setting the Stage

The bayside community of San Leandro, a progressive and conventional mid-size city of approximately 75,000 people, is located in San Francisco’s East Bay between the cities of Oakland and San Jose. During the last several decades, community leaders and city officials have developed a community culture based on traditional family values and a unique quality of life normally associated with a small town environment. The foundation that anchors city officials and elected officials to its community is the conviction of "doing the right thing"; giving back more than it receives, supporting and being supported, and embracing and being embraced.

San Leandro, like many other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, is situated among several well-known earthquake faults; one of these is the Hayward fault. Over one million people live adjacent to the Hayward fault which stretches sixty miles along the East Bay and is comprised of a northern and southern segment; at the apex of these two segments is the City of San Leandro. Thus the city has developed and implemented a comprehensive emergency services plan that addresses the East Bay’s natural and man-caused hazards; this plan is called the Partnership for Preparedness Program. This program incorporates the principle that preparedness and mitigation is a local issue, thus accepting the responsibility for reducing the impact of disasters. A significant element of the city’s vision statement is dedicated to becoming a Disaster Resistant Community.
Preparing for El Nino

In late summer of 1997, the San Francisco Bay Area media began to promote the weather condition approaching the Bay Area called El Nino; characterized by the large scale weakening of the trade winds and warming of the surface layers in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean. During this time the National Weather Service was hesitant to forecast the specific El Nino impact, when historically they had minimal El Nino data from which to analyze and predict. In September of 1998 the Vice President, state officials, and city officials held an El Nino Summit in Los Angeles to discuss El Nino issues and funding as related to California. Thus San Leandro City officials began preparing for what appeared to be a wet winter. The city initially identified many tasks in order to prepare for the impact of El Nino to include:

1. Revision and distribution of the city’s new emergency organization under the state’s Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS), utilizing the Incident Command System.

2. Development and distribution of the city’s new Management Operation Plan which provided Emergency Operations Center procedures.

3. SEMS training for city officials and continuity of government, standby officers, training for elected officials.

4. Preparedness training, monthly and on request, to community members and groups, as well as businesses and schools.

5. Adding a "Disaster Update" section to the city’s web site.

6. Upgrading of the city’s low-band radio station hardware used for broadcasting emergency information.

7. Acquisition of satellite weather monitors to obtain on-going weather conditions, forecasts, and warnings.

El Nino events occur irregularly at intervals of two to seven years and typically last twelve to eighteen months often resulting in heavy rain. As the city entered the New Year, city officials and elected officials felt prepared and confident for the anticipated and long awaited challenges of El Nino. But as El Nino approached the Bay Area, reports from the National Weather Service became more direct and dire. The National Weather Service realized what had begun was more than just a wet winter; that Northern California was expecting more than 177 percent of normal rainfall over the upcoming winter months!

El Nino Arrives

El Nino’s fingerprint arrived in San Leandro during the first weekend in February and landed with a vengeance. On February 4, the Chief of Police initiated a Level II (partial) activation of the city’s Emergency Operation Center (EOC) requiring city officials assigned key billets in the emergency organization to report for duty at the EOC. Throughout the city there was significant water damage and flooding causing a variety of public safety concerns; city officials were working 24 hours per day, 7 days per week responding to these problems. On February 6 the City Manager, functioning as the city’s Emergency Services Director, declared a local emergency, which was ratified by the City Council three days later.

Although the heavy and relentless rain caused erosion and ground failure at several locations in the community, city officials felt certain that significant landslides were not a threat. The city’s hillside community of Bay-O-Vista was the area most vulnerable to landslides, but it was located on the Hayward fault and the homes rested solidly on bedrock. There was no recent history of landslides in the Bay-O-vista area, but rather the infrequent shaking of the ground resulting from the Hayward fault or other nearby faults experiencing the stress and pressure of the earth moving.

The Unthinkable Happening

On the afternoon of February 9, after several days of on-going intense rain, a homeowner in the Bay-O-Vista area on Hillside Drive became concerned and contacted the city’s Building Division requesting a city Building Inspector survey the hill above and behind his property. The Building Inspector proceeded to Hillside Drive, thinking this was just another in a series of routine calls resulting from the rain saturated ground causing abnormal water runoff. The Building Inspector arrived at the scene and began what appeared to be a normal inspection; to his surprise, he found a series of small breaks in the ground running in a north-south pattern at the top of the 300-foot hillside. By afternoon, the small ground breaks had grown into large ground breaks and the Building Inspector summoned his supervisor. The Supervising Building Official inspected the ground breaks and immediately requested the city’s Chief Building Official for his professional opinion. By early evening, the Chief Building Official and a local GeoTechnical Engineer had determined the unthinkable; the hill, solid bedrock, was moving.

The Chief Building Official, not knowing the depth, speed, or cause of the hill’s movement immediately notified the City Manager, Assistant City Manager, Chief of Police, and the Emergency Services Manager. Twelve homes rested at the base of the hill and another dozen were located at the top of the hill. A joint decision was reached immediately to notify all homeowners in the Hillside Drive area of the immediate danger posed by the hill and to quickly determine which homes were at extreme risk and required evacuation.


As daylight was slowly slipping away, city officials and the GeoTechnical Engineer hastily returned to the Hillside Drive area and continued to monitor the hill as heavy rain continued to pound the city. By the following morning it became painfully apparent the breaks in the earth at the top of the hill were larger, while the cracks in the tipped retaining walls at the base of the hill had resulted from the hill inching forward towards the homes. The fury of El Nino had begun to takes it toll.

Within 24 hours city Building Inspectors had identified three homes at greatest risk requiring evacuation, and three other homes in which evacuation was recommended. City officials made the decision to have plastic tarps placed over the vulnerable areas of the hillside to slow down the hill’s saturation from the incessant rain. Officials from the city’s Building Division and Police Department began 24 hour monitoring of the Hillside Drive area. The Building Division’s initial emergency response efforts eventually evolved to the role of on-site manager for the impacted families and surrounding neighbors. City officials helped families move and relocate within the community or neighboring communities, while El Nino continued to pulverize the city. The City of San Leandro had received over nineteen inches of continuous rain by February 9, spanning the previous forty days and nights.

The intolerable rain and wind of El Nino appeared unending. Suddenly and without warning the hill began to accelerate towards the vacant homes as much as six to seven inches in a twenty-four hour period! Several of the homes began to feel the stress of the moving hill as patios, sidewalks, retaining walls, and fences, began to shift and break apart; even the homes’ foundations began to crumble beneath the houses. At this point the city contracted with a second GeoTechnical Engineer for peer evaluation and additional emergency response services. As the hill raced towards the homes, city officials finally conceded their worst fear; nothing the city could do would stop the force and power of the hill’s movement; 70,000 cubic yards of moving earth. The city would be forced to wait until the hill found its own equilibrium, stopping its movement.

As El Nino continued to wreak havoc, the City’s Building Division suggested the innovative idea of moving the homes out of harm’s way, away from the hill; this decision would have to be finalized and implemented quickly. Unfortunately, the impacted homeowners were emotionally and physically drained and somewhat incapable of going shopping for a house mover! The Mayor, City Manager and Chief of Police unhesitatingly made a collective decision that became the turning point and focus of this disaster; the city was not going to let the homes be destroyed! The city would locate and contract with a house mover, and move the homes out of harm’s way for the homeowners.

After several more days of heavy rain and strong wind, El Nino took a day off. The city immediately had the house movers lifting two homes off their foundations and moving them approximately twenty feet forward away from the moving hillside. The City’s Public Works Department assisted with clearing and removing debris and material from the homeowners’ yards and streets. City volunteers helped a homeowner prepare her yard and save her plants prior to her home being moved. The second GeoTechnical Engineer also took advantage of the break in the weather and began a geotechnical investigation of the entire hillside. As part of the investigation a detailed topographic and geologic map was developed and six deep bore holes were drilled on the hillside for inclinometer and piezometer monitoring.

Over twelve inches of rain fell in the month of February and continued without interruption into March dumping several more inches of rain. City officials worked around the clock providing Hillside Drive resident’s on-site emergency services for over sixty days during the height of El Nino’s unforgiving weather. During this period the hill continued to move towards the temporary relocated homes, which had been moved forward to the edge of the street and placed on railroad ties. On March 2, 1998 as the weather became less severe, the city’s Emergency Operations Center was deactivated and the City Council terminated the local emergency.

The Aftermath

In May, three months after the hill began moving, the toe of the hill had moved forward approximately forty-two feet and was now located under one of the temporary relocated homes still resting on railroad ties. The hill’s movement now was not only a threat to the homes, but also on a collision course with the city’s infrastructure; the hill’s toe was approximately thirty-four feet from the city’s sidewalk and utilities (located beneath the street). By early April the hill’s movement had slowed to one inch per twenty-four hour period. The severe and unyielding weather experienced during February and March had subsided; however, El Nino continued to plague the city with brisk weather through May.

In April, the GeoTechnical Engineer had completed his investigation of the hillside and concluded:

"It is clear from our work that the landslide will continue to move downslope and place the homes, as well as the city right-of-way, in jeopardy. In our opinion, the risk to the city streets and utilities is high. We have noticed over the past month [March] that the landslide is still quite active and is progressing toward Hillside Drive. If the continued landslide activity is not mitigated within the next few months, it is highly likely that the landslide toe will extend into, and damage, Hillside Drive. In addition, the failure of the landslide has placed Edgehill Court and the homes at the top of the hill at risk."

The final plan to stop the hill’s movement, developed by the GeoTechnical Engineer involving a series of large shear pins driven into the hillside and anchored into the hill, was estimated at a cost of 3.5 million dollars. City officials believe that the landslide continues to pose an imminent danger to its public facilities as it inches closer to the city sidewalk and street. Additionally, the city believes, as a minimum, the temporary stopping of this landslide is in the public interest and is currently seeking funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Governor’s State Office of Emergency Services to implement the geotechnical plan.

Doing the Right Thing

It will be a long time, before the San Leandro community forgets the rage and anger of El Nino 98, which had dumped over 200% normal rainfall on the city in generating the wettest winter this century in the Bay Area. Although families and lives were displaced and the future for many remain uncertain, something remarkable happened in this bayside community on Hillside Drive. It was all private property, and city officials could have walked away after their initial evaluation of the homes at risk. However, the city refused to allow their residents to stand alone in the wake of El Nino, an over- powering and destructive force of nature. The city without hesitation did the right thing. City officials embraced the Hillside homeowners during one of the most severe storms in California history; and in return the Hillside homeowners embraced the city officials. The city refused to allow an overpowering hill obliterate the homes and lives of the families it serves. Together city officials and homeowners fought overwhelming odds to save the homes. Unlike many cities, the city provided immediate and ongoing on-site emergency management and financial assistance, as well as reassurance to the Hillside Drive residents they would not be abandoned during their time of need.

During the height of El Nino’s worst weather, Hillside Drive homeowners were serving meals, providing drinks, and furnishing shelter to city workers providing emergency services. City officials became a permanent part of the Hillside Drive community. Special bank accounts were established to receive monetary donations for the displaced families. Town meetings were conducted in which there was no arguing, fighting or placing of blame, but embracing, understanding, and sharing.

The City Council, city officials, community leaders, and the Hillside Drive residents came together for support and relief in their search for a mutual solution. Although the hill continues to inch forward towards the relocated homes and the city’s public facilities, the fight is not over. The City Council and city officials are continuing to move forward in support of the Hillside Drive solution and encouraging FEMA and OES to join them …in doing the right thing.

Dan S. Lunsford has completed 20 years in law enforcement in California and 28 years in the Marine Corps Reserve assigned to the Marine Forces Pacific Command. He is currently the Emergency Services Manager with the San Leandro Police Department.