While most of us huddled indoors during the nonstop storms that pummeled the Bay Area from Dec. 26 to Jan. 16, the people who maintain 660 miles of unincorporated Santa Clara County roads and expressways were getting soaked by torrential rain and battered by the wind.
They worked around the clock, in harsh conditions, to keep the public safe, from clearing roads of downed trees and mudslides to unblocking debris-choked culverts. They closed or restricted access to crumbling or mud-covered roads while working as quickly as possible to make them passable for residents and emergency vehicles.
As the region dries out after one of the wettest three-week periods in Bay Area history, the County’s approximately 100 road maintenance workers continue to monitor and repair the damage, capping the wildest, most destructive storm event in Santa Clara County since the Coyote Creek flood of 2017.
The most serious damage to County roads is concentrated on Bear Creek Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mines Road on the backside of Mount Hamilton, and Old Santa Cruz Highway along Lexington Reservoir. The County estimates it will cost up to $10 million to hire contractors to repair 10 mangled stretches of road.
Getting ready for nature’s onslaught
Preparation for the storms began in the fall, when road maintenance workers performed their annual check of every culvert that passes underneath a County roadway, ensuring they were free of tree branches and other debris, and cleared out roadside ditches.
The County’s Road & Signal Operations Division stepped up its preparation as weather forecasters identified the atmospheric river that would deliver a series of major storms to Northern California beginning the day after Christmas. They purchased supplies and rented extra equipment, including excavators, metal plates to cover sinkholes, and temporary signals for one-way traffic. Crews staged trucks and other equipment near likely trouble spots.
“The staff who work on our roads were prepared to do the exemplary job they did,” said Harry Freitas, Director of the County’s Roads and Airports Department. “We had the people, equipment and resources. This is what we train for.”
The County’s road maintenance workers are divided among three maintenance yards. The West Yard is responsible for the Santa Cruz Mountains, which absorbed the brunt of the storms. Rain lashed the mountains, sending torrents of water and debris downhill through creeks and gullies. Saturated hillsides slumped and gave way. Drought-weakened trees were pulled down by mudslides or blown over by powerful wind gusts.
By New Year’s weekend, calls for service were coming in 24 hours a day, said Jeff Mendes, Road Operations Superintendent at the West Yard. Downed trees and mudslides were blocking the steep, narrow roads that wind into the mountains. Crews worked many hours of overtime, using front loaders, excavators and other heavy equipment to remove mud, trees and boulders.
“They were out in the field throughout the night in the storms, doing the best they could to keep the roads open and safe for the public,” said Mendes. “It’s hard, fatiguing, stressful work. You’re in rain gear in the middle of the weather – windy, rainy and cold. It’s hard to do. And they kept going. It was impressive.”
There are only a handful of roads that cross the mountains between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. The County operates several, including Bear Creek Road, Summit Road and Skyline Road. Keeping those roads open was important, especially when state Route 9 and state Route 17, the two main arteries connecting the South Bay and the coast, were closed.
The biggest priority was ensuring that mountain residents were not cut off from police, fire and medical personnel in case of emergency.
“Some of the roads are dead-end roads, only one way in, one way out,” said Mike Martinez, a Road Maintenance Supervisor at the West Yard. “So, if we got a big mudslide all the way across the road, that’s definitely a potential hazard for anyone who lives on the other side.”
Road maintenance shifts into next phase
Now that the storms have passed, road maintenance workers have shifted their focus to fixing potholes and cleaning up debris, though they are still monitoring damaged roadways and clearing new slides that occur, since the mountain slopes are so water-logged that, in some spots, they continue to move.
Once the rainy season is done, road maintenance crews will begin repaving roads throughout the county. The dry months from spring through late fall are the time for fixing roads so they can withstand the storms of winter.
The work never ends, but the County’s road maintenance workers know they are performing an important public service.
Al Rivera, a road maintenance worker at the West Yard, said it was rewarding to help the community during the storms. He recalls residents showing their appreciation when he cleared a tricky mudslide on West Road near Los Gatos. The slide was on a steep, hairpin turn, and his backhoe was slipping as he scooped away the soil.
“We got good comments and stuff, some thank yous and some waves,” said Rivera. “When you get residents that come up to you and thank you, it feels good.”
You can help keep our road maintenance crews safe – along with other drivers and pedestrians – by slowing down and being careful when approaching work zones on our roadways, especially during stormy weather.
To report an issue with a County-operated roadway, from a pothole to malfunctioning traffic signal, visit the Roads and Airports Department’s service request webpage. The page shows you how to submit service requests online or download the Mobile Citizen app to your smartphone.