Three men and a dog were removed from an island in the American River near Howe Avenue Thursday morning. They were stranded as the river rose in a storm on Thursday, Dec. 15. Nashelly Chavez The Sacramento Bee
Three men and a dog were removed from an island in the American River near Howe Avenue Thursday morning. They were stranded as the river rose in a storm on Thursday, Dec. 15. Nashelly Chavez The Sacramento Bee

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Rising water disrupts homeless camps on American River Parkway

By Ellen Garrison

egarrison@sacbee.com

December 18, 2016 11:05 AM

It was a busy weekend for Sacramento firefighters, who were repeatedly called upon to rescue homeless people who had become trapped by rising waters along the American River Parkway.

Since the latest storm hit Sacramento on Thursday, firefighters have rescued 16 people and 14 dogs. On Sunday, crews responded to another call for help. All the people got to shore on their own, said Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Chris Harvey, but a dog remained missing even after firefighters waded out in the water to search for it.

“It’s a high number for such a short period of time,” Harvey said of the number of rescues. “This is the first major, major storm (this year) where we had to perform multiple rescues.”

In the latest incident, the people were camped on islands near Northgate Boulevard and Del Paso Road.

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The water rose quickly during this weekend’s downpour, and that’s why so many people have been stranded, Harvey said. People who have set up camp inside the levees along the American River Parkway or on islands in the middle of the river get stuck when the waters rise.

The American is roaring at nearly 30,000 cubic feet per second, and the Sacramento River also is flowing remarkably high. The state’s gauging station at the I Street Bridge pegged the flows at 76,700 cubic feet per second on Sunday. The water is so high it topped the Fremont Weir near Knights Landing and is flooding at least part of the Yolo Bypass, the massive floodplain west of Sacramento.

Jeninah VanHecke was getting lunch from volunteers down the street from Loaves & Fishes on Sunday and contemplating how she would replace the food and belongings she’d lost in the storm. She’d known the water was going to rise, but she didn’t realize how far she would have to move to be safe. She’s been staying along the banks of the river for about two months, and this was the first time she’d seen the water rise rapidly, she said.

A friend recommended she pitch her tent next to the friend’s makeshift shack near North 10th Street for the weekend to avoid the floods. VanHecke said she left her tent for a while and when she returned Friday night, it was in the water.

She said she waded into the water to try to rescue what she could.

“I’m thinking, ‘Lord, don’t let this be the death of me,’ ” she said. She lost her tent, a camp stove and her lantern, all of which had sentimental value because they were given to her by her mother.

In a post on Facebook, the firefighters union noted that rescues such as the one on Sunday can require the response of as many as 20 firefighters, some of whom have experience dating back to Hurricane Katrina.

Harvey said the number of rescuers depends on the nature of the call. If people are stranded in the river itself, it’s more dangerous and requires more rescuers because of the moving water. When people are stuck in primarily standing water, he said it’s easier to retrieve them. He said a rescue can take anywhere from eight people to 30 or 40 if helicopters and boats are involved.

Harvey said the department sent some people out to known homeless encampments to try to get the word out about rising floodwaters, but the nature of homelessness makes it difficult to get the message to everyone.

Joan Burke, director of advocacy at Loaves & Fishes, said the homeless services organization also tried to get the word out to campers on the parkway, but many of them aren’t connected with the wider world.

Federal forecasters say they expect the Sacramento River’s flows to subside and creep back into the main channel by Wednesday.

The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow contributed to this report.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison