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‘We need to stop the water’: a California town’s frantic fight to save itself

Last week, when it rained for days and floodwaters poured over the roads, the people of Allensworth grabbed shovels and revved up the tractors.

Makeshift barriers they built out of sandbags, gravel and loose sand held in the water.

Now the city of nearly 600 northwest of Bakersfield faces another threat: a breached levee, along with another storm expected to hit in a few days.

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

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

Local leaders say they need the help of local, state and county officials to protect their town.

“It’s becoming a huge crisis for our community,” said Kayode Kadara, 69, who has been working with neighbors to fend off the flooding. “We have many concerned people in this community. And we all come together to help each other.”

The low-lying unincorporated community is located in the Tulare Lake Basin, which was drained for agriculture in the early 20th century. Recent storms have sent floodwaters through channels and ditches and flowing across farmland toward the former lake bottom.

On Saturday, a helicopter flew over the breached levee and dropped loads of sand to plug it, while a crew used machinery to help close the leak, said Jack Mitchell, director of the Deer Creek Flood Control District.

He said the levee has been mostly repaired, but flooding remains a major concern.

Mitchell said he believes the levee breach was caused by someone intentionally cutting through the earthen barrier with machinery.

“They did it with a backhoe with a big dump truck. We track it down,” Mitchell said. “We know who has done it.”

Mitchell said he hopes the US Army Corps of Engineers or other authorities come in to “take over” and help the area “start to get rid of this flooding.”

“We need help from higher up because the water is coming from another stream and it is going to hit us hard,” he said.

Some farmland owners have been trying to keep flooding off their acres, Mitchell said, including one who used a large piece of equipment to block a canal.

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

More than a dozen residents were talking next to a runoff-filled ditch.

Beside them was a gravel berm they had rushed to build two days before, near the entrance to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

In the distance, a red emergency helicopter was flying back and forth, apparently dumping sand to repair the broken dam.

The choppy brown water had sunk a few meters below the berm, but residents said they are worried they may have to evacuate when the next surge of water hits. They said a couple of families have already packed up and left low houses.

Kadara’s son, Tekoah Kadara, said more than 100 residents gathered at the primary school on Friday night to discuss their plans to prevent disasters.

“We’re just talking about how we can save our community, because no one is coming to help us,” said Kadara, 41, chief executive of the Allensworth Community Development Corporation.

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

Flooding from the Blanco River has passed through the city, and Kadara said people are also concerned about the water spill from Success Lake.

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

“In fact, we did a good job of temporarily solving a problem. But for whatever reason, the railway unlocked it,” Kadara said.

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

He said he is concerned that community residents have not received the help they need to protect themselves.

“They would not allow this water to reach a white town,” said Kadara, standing next to the flooded ditch, where the water flowed through the culvert under the road.

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

Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for the BNSF, said that residents had arrived on railway property and their actions had put rail infrastructure at risk.

“That was not the right approach,” Kent said. She said railroad officials were concerned that plugging the culverts would send water onto railroad property, “and we could have had a ceded track there.”

“I just think they put a lot of people in danger by doing what they did that night,” Kent said. “I fully understand and understand what they are trying to do, but perhaps they should focus on protecting and protecting their property.”

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

“He delayed the flow of water to his tracks, for God’s sake. How could it be dangerous? Kayode Kadara said.

Kadara, a retired director of regional facilities for the US Postal Service, works as a consultant for a local nonprofit organization called the Allensworth Progressive Association, which runs community projects.

He said Allensworth urgently needs help from county, state and local flood control officials. Farmland owners need to be part of the discussion, too, so they can help keep flooding away from the community, she said.

The community has a long history of coping with flooding.

José “Chepo” Gonzáles, 50, said he remembers the 1979 flood, when he was 7 years old. His father wore rubber boots and waded through the water, lifting him up to join others in the bed of a garbage truck.

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

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

“I have to do what my dad did 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 drive them to a sister’s house 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 along with another man.

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

He said he plans to stay and hopes the city gets the resources it needs.

“Thank God we have our neighbors,” Strong said. “It’s amazing to see the way they come together.”

As residents talked by the flowing ditch under clear skies, Kayode Kadara pointed to the snow-covered Sierra Nevada in the distance. In the spring, the historically deep snow will melt and fall precipitously to the valley floor.

“Once it warms up and starts flowing, we have a big challenge on our hands,” he said. “We’re looking at two to three months more than what we’re dealing with right now.”