On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked President Biden for flood relief for 17 counties. San Joaquin County, clobbered by storms and flooding, was left off the list.

The hot take: WTF?

“It is unacceptable that once again Washington and Sacramento have left San Joaquin County behind,” 9th Congressional District Rep. Josh Harder fumed in a statement. “This happens over and over and I’m tired of it.”

The governor’s omission seemed indefensible. After all, over 50 Stockton Unified schools closed, as did San Joaquin Delta College, and Stockton’s mall, due to power outage; downed trees and flooded roads were everywhere.

Southeast of Tracy, as Corral Hollow Creek overflowed, sheriff and fire personnel cordoned off a mile-square swath of countryside, closed roads, and went door to door issuing “evacuation advisories.” Residents were warned to pack “go bags” and be ready to evacuate “at a moment’s notice.”

County officials estimate damage at $7 million so far.

Rivers, creeks and canals are rising. The ground is saturated. And yet another brutal atmospheric river is bearing down, one of several expected to pummel the state between now and Jan. 19.

Worries are further fueled by a 2022 study finding that climate change has rendered old climate models obsolete. A Biblical “megaflood” like the one of 1862-3 that submerged 6,000 square miles of the Sacramento-San Joaquin valley is now a matter of if, not when.

From now on, weather like this may affect knowledgeable people like the onset of an earthquake in San Francisco, causing residents to worry, “Is this the Big One?”

A call to the governor’s office was returned by Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the state Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES).

“You and Congressman Harder can rest easy,” Ferguson said. “It’s likely we will continue to add many counties, including San Joaquin, in the days to come.”

Okay. But why was San Joaquin County left off?

Storm-flood disaster declarations work differently than do, say, fire disaster declarations, Ferguson said. With fire, known counties require aid. To get ahead of the current storms, the state climatologist used a “predictive” model based on National Weather Service (NWS) data.

The governor asked the president for flood relief for the counties predicted to be hit hardest when the storms made landfall.

The funny thing is the NWS predictions, and therefore the state disaster requests, were almost impossibly accurate, in the case of San Joaquin County, at least.

Unlike the first storm, which parked over San Joaquin County, the second storm was not as bad as expected.

“We got lucky,” said Tiffany Heyer, the county’s director of emergency operations. “We’re not sure how. We are still dealing with things—waterways that haven’t seen this much water before, reclamation districts doing high water patrols and flood fighting, privately owned systems that are overtopping due to the sheer amount of water we’ve had in the last few weeks. But we expected much worse.”

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So, in an era of limited resources, state officials predicted which counties would need help the most and asked Uncle Sam for it.

“However, we know that weather is fickle,” added Ferguson. “We’ll continue to add counties, cities, tribal governments based on what the real impacts are.”

I want to give credit where credit is due. But I refuse to believe that state officials are this good. They may make good use of good science and technology. But, unless state OES has hired The Amazing Kreskin, they are not clairvoyant. What if they had been wrong?

Besides, predictive models do not factor in levees protecting Stockton from Delta floods. One risk assessment found that 92% of properties and 97% of commercial buildings in the City of Stockton are at risk during a flood. If ever there was a flood-prone place where better safe than sorry, it is Stockton, the largest city on the Delta.

Anyway, on Monday San Joaquin County was added to the federal flood relief declaration.

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Harder was mollified.

“I’m proud we were able to talk some sense into Washington and Sacramento,” he said in another statement. “San Joaquin County needs support, and now federal resources are finally heading our way.”

Kudos to Harder for the vocal advocacy. Keep it up, man.

There may be a second reason San Joaquin County was left out of the original declaration: local officials may not have done the necessary paperwork.

Counties can be added to the Declaration by submitting a formal request to Cal OES. San Joaquin County did not. County officials, who declared a local emergency Jan. 1 (ratified by the Board Jan. 4), may have assumed the governor would include the county.

If so, they were unpleasantly surprised.  

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On Monday the Board chair and County Administrator drafted a Cal OES letter formally requesting San Joaquin County be added. The letter was submitted Tuesday. Uncle Sam had already added the county the day before.

Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: mfitzgeraldstockton@gmail.com.

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