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'It was like I was looking at an aquarium': San Jose flood victims tell their stories

Even those who had prepared for flooding in San Jose were outmatched by rising floodwaters no one expected.

The worst flooding in 100 years forced the evacuations of at least 14,000 residents in the center of the city as the Coyote Creek overflowed its banks. The surge in water came after weeks of pounding rain that pushed the Anderson Dam beyond its limit. 

Rob Souza, 49, had thought he was prepared for a flood. He knew exactly where the floodwaters had come up before on his property on William Street just west of Coyote Creek. He spent eight hours Monday painstakingly building 3-foot-tall walls of sandbags protecting both a newly renovated cottage about 50 yards away from the creek and his two-story home farther up a hillside. If the floodwaters came up to the level they did in 1997, he would be fine.

But by Tuesday morning, rising creek waters burst through the first sandbag wall. The cottage was gone, Souza thought, so he scrambled to move the sandbags to buttress the barrier protecting the ground floor of his home. Souza watched as the sandbags seemed to work, but creek water kept on rising, finally two feet above the windowsill.

"It was like I was looking at an aquarium," Souza said.  Then a window broke.

"Then, it was all over," Souza said.

Eventually, the flood waters brought a 50-year-old oak tree crashing down onto the cottage, punching through the roof and exposing the yellow insulation to the sky.

"Like the mayor said, it passed the 100-year flood plan," Souza said. "Obviously, no one expected that to happen."

"I just can't believe it," said Souza's wife, Renee, as she looked at the damage.

Gone were the beautiful grassy field and landscaped patio in Souza's backyard. Still hanging on in the floodwaters was an orange tree and an apple tree, still collecting debris. But swept away was the persimmon tree.

The situation was precarious late Tuesday evening, after a giant eucalyptus tree on the east side of the property came crashing down on the Williams Street bridge to the east, completely blocking that exit path. To the west, deep floodwaters hemmed Souza and his family inside.

"We couldn't get out, either way," said Souza, who feared remaining eucalyptus trees could fall on his home.

Louis Silva, 48, said his possessions were swallowed up in the flood. Silva said the warnings did not indicate the magnitude of the flooding that actually happened.

"They didn't say it was going to go up as high as it did," Silva said, adding the city should've done more to warn people ahead of time about the scale of the disaster, such as a cellphone text alert or knocking on doors.

"They should've put the footwork in to show the urgency of the situation as it came," Silva said. "It hurt everyone.... When Mother Nature shows up, she shows up."

"To think they can throw up balloons in the air and see what's going on with the atmosphere and the clouds and everything and at the same time, we weren't able to predict this situation," Silva said. "It's unfortunate for a lot of people."

Dawn Rogers, 47, said she was in the mandatory evacuation zone but decided to hunker down instead of leave. She watched as Williams Street turned into an extension of Coyote Creek, as firefighters took a boat down the street to rescue residents in homes that were flooded. By 1 p.m. Tuesday, residents were rushing to fill up their cars with valuables.

"It was crazy. We have never seen anything like it," said Rogers. "Being in a drought for all these years, you don't ever think you're ever in danger of a flood."

"It was scary," Rogers said.

Rogers' home was not flooded but waters did come close to her home, which is several blocks away from the creek.

Rogers was also upset about the lack of warning about the magnitude of the disaster.

"The dam clearly was overflowing," Rogers said. "What are we paying taxes to San Jose for? These are people's lives, their pets, their kids, their homes."

Kevin Rodriguez, 9, watched in shock as floodwaters came up Williams Street, flooding plants closest to the street and creeping up to the doorstep. "We saw it coming up," Rodriguez said. "It came quickly."

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