A California town’s frantic struggle to save itself from flooding

Last week, when it rained for days and floodwaters poured onto the roads, residents of Allensworth grabbed shovels and spun tractors.

Makeshift barriers they built with sandbags, gravel and loose sand held back the water.

Now the town of nearly 600 people northwest of Bakersfield faces another threat – a broken levee, as well as another storm that is expected to hit within days.

On Saturday morning, residents were back at work, shoveling sand onto a 3-foot-tall berm.

Allensworth, the first town in the state to be founded by black Americans, is a predominantly Latino community. Some locals work on nearby farms, planting and harvesting almonds, pistachios, grapes, and pomegranates.

Local leaders say they need help from county, state and local authorities to protect their city.

“This is becoming a major crisis for our community,” said Kayode Kadara, 69, who is working with neighbors to defend against flooding. “We have a lot of worried people in this community. And we are all mobilizing to help each other.

The low-lying unincorporated community sits within the Lake Tulare watershed, which was drained for agriculture in the early 1900s. Recent storms have sent floodwaters through canals and ditches and crossing the farmland towards the old bottom of the lake.

On Saturday, a helicopter flew over the broken levee and dropped loads of sand to plug it, while a crew used machinery to help plug the leak, said Deer Creek flood control district chief Jack Mitchell.

He said the levee was almost completely repaired but flooding was still a big concern.

Mitchell said he believed the levee breach was caused by someone intentionally cutting the earth barrier with machinery.

“They did it with a backhoe with a big bucket. We found him,” Mitchell said. “We know who did it.”

Mitchell said he hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other authorities will come “to take charge” and help the area “start to get rid of these flood waters.”

“We need help from above because from another stream, the water is coming right there, and it’s going to hit us hard,” he said.

Some farm landowners have tried to keep floodwaters off their acreage, Mitchell said, including one who used large equipment to block a channel.

“They just don’t want to give ground, but they’d rather flood everywhere except where it’s supposed to go,” Mitchell said.

More than a dozen residents were chatting beside a ditch swollen with runoff.

Next to them was a gravel berm they had hastily built two days before near the entrance to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

In the distance, a red emergency helicopter circled back and forth, apparently dropping loads of sand to repair the broken seawall.

The boiling brown water had flowed a few meters below the berm, but residents said they feared they would have to evacuate when the flood waters next rose. They said a few families had already packed up and left the low houses.

Kadara’s son, Tekoah Kadara, said more than 100 residents met at the primary school on Friday night to discuss their disaster prevention plans.

“We’re just talking about how we can save our community because nobody’s coming to help us,” said Kadara, 41, executive director of the Allensworth Community Development Corporation.

“We need temporary shielding right now,” Kadara said. “We have to stop the water from entering the city.”

Floodwaters from the White River passed through the city, and Kadara said people were also worried about water spills from Success Lake.

When residents saw water surging towards the community on Thursday, they said they used sandbags, rocks and plywood to plug the flow through two culverts along Highway 43, next BNSF railroad tracks.

“Actually, we did a good job temporarily solving a problem. But for some reason the railroad unblocked it,” Kadara said.

Kayode Kadara said BNSF Railway sent contractors who came with machinery and removed the sandbags and plywood.

He expressed concern that residents of the community have not received the help they need to protect themselves.

“They wouldn’t allow that water to enter a white town,” Kadara said, standing beside the flood-swollen ditch, where water was flowing through the culvert under the road.

Residents said that when they were initially working to plug the culvert, they took rocks that were piled next to the train tracks, but a crew told them to stop. So they brought their own sandbags and plywood to erect the barriers.

BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent said residents came onto railroad property and their actions put rail infrastructure at risk.

“It was the wrong approach,” Kent said. She said railroad officials were concerned that plugging the culverts would send water scouring railroad property, “and we could have given way to a track there.”

“I just think they put a lot of people at risk by doing what they did that night,” Kent said. “I completely sympathize and understand what they are trying to do, but maybe they should focus on protecting, sandbagging around their property.”

She said the BNSF is open to ideas from the community and also works with the county and state to protect rail infrastructure.

“It slowed down the flow of water in their tracks, for heaven’s sake. How could that be dangerous?” said Kayode Kadara.

Kadara, a retired regional facilities manager for the U.S. Postal Service, works as an advisor to a local nonprofit called the Allensworth Progressive Association, which runs community projects.

He said Allensworth urgently needs help from county, state and local flood officials. Farm owners also need to be part of the discussion, so they can help direct floodwaters away from the community, he said.

The community has a long history of flood management.

Jose “Chepo” Gonzales, 50, said he remembered the 1979 floods when he was 7 years old. His father wore rubber boots and waded through the water, lifting him up to join the others on the bed of a dump truck.

Her father had stayed behind to try to protect their home, ramming an old Plymouth to stop a leak into the canal bank, where men piled rocks and dirt, Gonzales recalled.

Gonzales said those repairs are still visible as a bulge in the levee.

“I have to do like my dad back then,” said Gonzales, who moved sand with a small tractor to help build a berm.

He said he planned to load his cattle onto a trailer and take them to a sister on higher ground. Other people in the community have goats, pigs and chickens.

Raymond Strong, a resident who once played in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons, also remembers 1979 when his grandfather died in floodwaters with another man.

“It’s really scary,” Strong said. “If the water really comes, it will uproot people.”

He said he intends to stay and he hopes the city will get the resources it needs.

“Thank God we have our neighbors,” Strong said. “It’s amazing how they come together.”

As locals talked near the flowing ditch under clear skies, Kayode Kadara pointed to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the distance. In the spring, the historically deep snow will melt and rush to the bottom of the valley.

“Once it heats up and starts to sink, we have a major challenge ahead,” he said. “We’re looking at two to three more months of what we’re facing right now.”

Los Angeles Times

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