Victims of 2017 San Jose flood settle case for $8.25 million with Santa Clara Valley Water District

More than five years after neighborhoods near downtown San Jose flooded following a series of major storms, Silicon Valley’s largest water agency has agreed to settle lawsuits from more than 200 people who suffered losses.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District, a government agency based in San Jose that provides drinking water and flood control to much of Santa Clara County, will pay $8.25 million by June 15 to 231 families and individuals whose homes and belongings were submerged under a torrent of muddy, rising water when Coyote Creek burst over its banks on Feb. 21, 2017.

“There’s a level of relief that we were able to reach resolution,” said Anne Kepner, lead attorney for the victims. “Given all the circumstances, I think it was fair.”

The flood occurred after a series of large atmospheric river storms. It was San Jose’s worst flood since 1997.

The disaster caused an estimated $100 million in damage and the emergency evacuation of 14,000 people who lived near Coyote Creek, one of two major bodies of water, along with the Guadalupe River, that flow through San Jose.

Hard hit were the neighborhoods of Rock Springs, Naglee Park and several mobile home parks between Old Oakland Road and Coyote Creek.

Drenching weather that month also caused the near-failure of Oroville Dam in Butte County.

Hundreds of victims of the San Jose floods sued afterward. They claimed that city officials did not do enough to properly warn the public of the danger until it was too late. And they said that the water district also bore responsibility, because it had failed to adequately maintain vegetation and sediment in the creek channel, and that it improperly operated Anderson Dam upstream.

The suits were consolidated and the case was set to go to trial in May. Under the agreement now, the victims dropped future claims against the water district, and the water district denied any wrongdoing or liability.

“I’m very glad it has been settled,” said Dick Santos, a water district board member whose district was in the flooded areas. “I have been a flood victim myself, in 1983. I wish it would have been settled sooner, but there were delays from lawyers and insurance companies.”

Following the flood, lawsuits were filed against the city of San Jose, Santa Clara County, the water district and the state Division of Safety of Dams. The county and state were dismissed during the proceedings.

Last November, the city of San Jose settled with the victims for $750,000.

Kepner said the money from the latest settlement will be divided in different amounts based on the amount of damage that families documented.

One of the victims, Sandra Moll and her husband, Rick Holden, had 6 feet of water pour into the first floor of their house on South 16th Street near William Street Park.

“We put sandbags down and plastic,” Moll said Tuesday. “But once the water got there, it plowed right through the sandbags. It came into the house so fast. It was shocking. The water blasted the doors open, and they were locked. It was awful. It was muddy, toxic water. A horrible mess. We lost everything — all the furniture, the cabinets, everything was covered with mud and destroyed.”

The couple moved to a hotel, then a family member’s backyard cottage in Campbell. They were out of their home for three weeks. Rebuilding took a year. They had to gut the entire first floor of their home down to the studs.

Moll, a retired financial planner, said she is satisfied with the settlement. She said the attorneys will get roughly one-third, but that they worked for four years and earned it.

“The money was the secondary reason for the lawsuit,” she said. “We wanted the water district to be held accountable. There was no other way to do that except by suing them and making things public. As much as I am happy that it is settled, I’m disappointed because I think a public trial would have exposed how horribly run this water district is. That’s my big regret. That we didn’t get a public trial. I think that’s one reason why they settled. This was going to be very uncomfortable for them.”

In 2019, the water district paid claims of up to $5,000 for 162 people who agreed to drop all future lawsuits. Many of those claims, totaled $666,707, went to low-income residents, many of them Vietnamese-American immigrants who did not have insurance, and for whom in some cases English was not their first language.

“A lot of people just took the $5,000,” Moll recalled. “They didn’t have the wherewithal to hire an attorney. I feel so badly. I feel horrible for them.”

Since the flood, the water district was ordered by federal regulators to rebuild Anderson Dam due to earthquake risk on the 72-year-old structure. The project, now under construction, has doubled in price to $1.2 billion, and won’t be finished until at least 2030.

The district also is working to build floodwalls, berms and new levees along five stretches of Coyote Creek in flood-prone areas between Montague Expressway and Tully Road.

A still photo captured from a drone video depicts the extensive flooding which enveloped East William Street in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy Kevin Lowe) (Courtesy Kevin Lowe)

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