When the weather is so bad that the forecast warns everyone to hunker down and avoid driving, it’s as if Dan Pendergraft and his crew hear the opposite. They often end up jumping in their trucks and driving out to tackle the biggest problems, morning, noon or night.
A flooded expressway. An axle-bending pothole. A fallen tree or a mudslide blocking a road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
When incidents like these happen, a tiger team from the Santa Clara County Roads and Airports Department is dispatched to restore the road to safety and passability while keeping commerce going.
Pendergraft, a grizzled construction man who will retire in a couple of years and calls his three little dogs his “babies,” is the superintendent of the West Maintenance Yard on Doyle Drive in west San Jose. His yard is the workhorse of the three yards spread around the county. Covering a territory from the San Mateo County line near Stanford University to the Old Almaden community in the south San Jose area, West Yard’s territory touches 10 municipalities and maintains the majority of Silicon Valley’s critical expressways: Lawrence, San Tomas, Central, Oregon-Page Mill, Foothill. Oh, and the county roads feeding hundreds of small communities in the rugged, remote Santa Cruz Mountains.
Rain, rain, rain
As you might imagine, January was a huge challenge for the diverse group of people who work out of the West Yard. Parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains were hit with more than 300 percent of their average rainfall for the month.
That’s so much rain in such a short time that the loamy soil, built up from the debris of redwoods and oaks over the centuries, couldn’t absorb it all. High up on Gist Road, above Los Gatos, a normally insignificant rivulet that trickles off the steep slope and runs harmlessly down the roadside became a gushing waterfall.
Eventually, it touched off a mudslide that surged across the road, narrowly missing a house but demolishing the resident’s fence and shed. The weight of the muck walked a 150-foot tree down the steep slope in an upright position, cutting a path through the canopy formed by the tree’s neighbors, like a glacier cutting through bedrock. Maybe 150 feet downhill, it crashed to the forest floor.
Then the real damage occurred. With the rootball no longer there to support the road, most of the pavement collapsed in its wake, cutting people off from their homes, loved ones, jobs, and supplies.
Half a day later, the West Yard crew had cleaned up the mess of mud and debris, but the road, which some people also use to get to nearby Lakeside Elementary School, remains closed at the washout, which cannot be repaired right away. Such is life in the mountains; people make do by helping each other out, because one day they may be the ones who need help.
This sort of grueling work is not for everyone. When epic storms arrive, crew members are expected to respond day after day, if necessary, and work in dangerous, uncomfortable conditions. You get overtime, but you come home dog-tired.
“We had crews on-site pretty much starting Thursday and Friday nights, Saturday night and even Sunday,” Pendergraft recalled. “We did get out of here around 7, 8 o’clock Sunday night, and the majority of the crews were able to go home and get some rest. … And Monday we started all over again.
“As of now, all our roads are open, which is a great feat for what we were up against. Cleanup is going to be months in the making.”
Most people aren’t cut out for physical and mental demands of a never-ending battle with nature. But for those who love the challenge, and the satisfaction of restoring vital lifelines for county residents, it’s satisfying work.
Sergio Carmona, one of the newest additions to Pendergraft’s crew, captured that can-do spirit on his cellphone and posted a dramatic video on YouTube taken during the height of recent storm. It opens with footage shot from inside the cab of a truck. Big trees are being pushed around in fierce winds amid a cold, hard rain falling nearly horizontally. Hilariously opening in black and white, it looks like the opening scene of a horror flick, the captioning flickering over haunting music: “The Storm That Ended The California Drought … Wreaked Havoc On Our Roads. … Based on True Events.”
Visiting a post-storm work site, even after the main event has passed, one can appreciate the hazards these men face. Although they don’t get the same public adulation that cops and firefighters do, the dangers they face are just as real. Falling limbs, rocks, and power lines are a constant danger. A chainsaw slipping. Massive trucks and construction equipment moving about. An inattentive driver taking a blind curve too fast. “It’s spooky,” Pendergraft says.
So, yes, the five-year drought is over in Santa Clara County after some pretty good rainfall in the past two winters. But when it’s not raining, the county road maintenance crews have plenty of work to do. A lot of that involves getting ready for the next rainy season — keeping culverts clear, moving massive piles of muck and debris they dumped in designated spots to dry out, scouring the roadsides for potential hazards like broken limbs, guardrails and road signs. Then there are striping roads, maintaining the signals on the expressways and more.
All that routine stuff is in a day’s work. Until the next heavy rain.
Things to know before you go
- Road Closures. Severe weather means that road conditions can change from day to day. Visit www.sccgov.org/roadclosures for an updated list of emergency closures on County-maintained roads.
- Traffic Conditions. What’s the traffic like? Check out the real-time traffic cameras on County expressways here: https://www.sccgov.org/sites/scc/Pages/SCC-Live-Traffic.aspx
- Mobile Citizen App. Report issues such as potholes, graffiti, illegal dumping, and other requests directly to the County’s work order system. An email notification is sent to you when the status of the issue changes. Visit www.sccgov.org/sites/RDA for more information.
By Chuck Carroll