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After homes flood in Tulare County, decision to pave over creek for new homes draws guilt

After the rain stopped Wednesday afternoon, the predominant sounds in northwest Woodlake were those of running gas and water generators.

On the outskirts of the city in Tulare County, northeast of Visalia, dozens of homes had been repeatedly flooded since early Friday as more storms hit California.

A new development was cut off from existing homes by a foot-deep, 10-foot-wide river of brown water, which ran around signs reading “Sold” and “Ready to Move In!” before reaching a main street and being funneled into a natural stream bed.

Keylan Liles, who has lived in a house on West Cajon Avenue for decades, said she had “never seen anything like it.”

“Then they built that,” he said, pointing to the new development across the street, which he said replaced the orchards and Antelope Creek with asphalt strips.

Madisyn Liles holds her 1-year-old son Luka as pumps remove floodwater from her home in Woodlake.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

His wife, Madisyn Liles, was outside their home with their 1-year-old son Luka. His home flooded for the first time on Friday, but an evacuation warning did not arrive until Wednesday morning, they said, days after they devised a pump system to pump water out of his home.

Now the house was mostly dry, but like most others in the neighborhood, its exterior walls bore several foot-high water marks.

“Our house would have flooded much worse if it weren’t for the bombs,” Madisyn said.

The Liles were still at home, where sandbags had prevented water from entering the main living areas. They are comparatively lucky.

A block away and a bit down the hill, the Zaragoza family home had those ubiquitous watermarks and sandbags. Unlike the Liles, the Zaragozas left on Friday to stay with a relative in a drier part of town.

As they were leaving, 3 feet of water had flooded their house. After his neighborhood dried up mostly, heavy rains on Tuesday flooded him again.

A man raises his hands in a muddy room as a woman places items in a plastic garbage bag.

An exasperated Irineo Zaragoza and his wife, Veronica, try to salvage their belongings from their flooded Woodlake home.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

“Everything is going to waste,” Irineo Zaragoza, 51, said in Spanish as he dragged bags of family belongings to the sidewalk.

Zaragoza, a beekeeper, said he couldn’t work because he needed to get everything out of his house as quickly as possible to avoid further damage.

Inside his house, mud covered the floors. The air smelled bad.

“It was beautiful before,” Zaragoza’s wife, Verónica, said of their home of five years, “and now it’s ugly.”

The family is not happy with the response from local officials: “There is no hotel, there is no food, nothing,” said Irineo Zaragoza. “We were abandoned by the city.”

His next-door neighbor, Joshua Matthew Diaz, 34, said the water was up to his knees on Friday.

“Most of our house was a total loss,” he said.

Like many in the neighborhood, he questioned whether the new development contributed to the flooding.

“It was done above the creek,” he said, possibly compromising the drainage. He has written to the city to ask how the houses were approved and what their environmental impact statement said.

A man drags sheets across a wet driveway in front of a tarp-covered house with stacks of sandbags outside.

Irineo Zaragoza drags muddy sheets out of his Woodlake home.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The land “was a basin” before it was developed, Díaz said, with orchards and a stream. The rumor in the neighborhood is that, due to the drought, “they did not expect this amount of water to arrive.”

Yanez Homes, developer of Hillside Estates, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Like the Zaragozas, Díaz did not have flood insurance. When he called, the company offered him a 30-day policy. The sigh. “I need some relief now.”

Diaz, a teacher in nearby Porterville, said he received a letter from the fire department saying the floodwater was “dangerous and contaminated” and that any furniture it touched should be deep cleaned or thrown away.

“The cost is going to be tremendous trying to get these houses back,” he said.

Daniel Salgado, project manager for 911 Restoration, was busy with a crew cleaning a house around the corner. Wednesday was the first day the roads were clear enough for outside crews to come in and work on the houses.

Floods fill a street and cover part of a sign that says "Move-in ready options available"

West Cajon Avenue is flooded across from Hillside Estates in Woodlake.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The houses in this neighborhood are in the “black water” category, he said. “Everything must go.”

Contaminants in the water included feces and pesticides, Salgado said. His team will spend several days at the home, he said, helping homeowners “prepare for what’s to come” by relocating valuables as more storms approach.

On Wednesday afternoon, under blue skies, Diaz helped neighbors remove items from their home for the Department of Public Works to pick up and dispose of.

The Zaragozas brought mattresses, bags of clothing, medical devices.

“We don’t have clothes,” said Irineo. “We do not know what to do”.