Soaked tents and flooded RVs: Homeless adults across Sacramento struggled in rainstorm

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Rebecca Hulsey, her partner, her pregnant daughter and her husband’s grandson were in their RV in North Sacramento on Sunday when rain started pouring in through the closed door. The water got so high it came up to their chests.

“We lost a lot of stuff — more than I could even think of right now,” Hulsey, 59, said Monday, standing in the doorway of the white and red RV surveying the damage. “I didn’t think it was going to get that high that quick.”

More rain fell Sunday than any other day in Sacramento’s recorded history, and in the North Sacramento industrial area, sump pumps lost power, causing severe flooding.

The family was getting ready to climb out the window when the Sacramento Fire Department showed up. Crews rescued the four of them, along with their friend Randy and their two dogs and a cat, on a raft Sunday night. The Fire Department also rescued about nine other homeless people from the street, Pell Drive, near Magpie Creek, said a spokesman, Capt. Keith Wade.

Before the storm hit, the pair had just gone grocery shopping, and lost all their food, Hulsey said. They also lost clothing, televisions, air conditioning units, and a solar panel. Their two RVs, which ran prior to the storm, likely will not run anymore. Their pickup truck did not start Monday morning after being submerged.

“I knew it was going to rain, but I didn’t know it was going to be that bad,” said Keith Jensen, 58, Hulsey’s partner.

While it was raining, several green power boxes exploded, and flames came out of them, Jensen said.

“It was scary,” Hulsey said. “We were worried about electrocution.”

Jeff McDowell, 50, and his wife, Ashleigh McDowell, 29, take a break from hanging blankets and clothing to dry on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, at the homeless Safe Ground near Eighth and W streets in Sacramento. They said their tent collapsed during Sunday’s storm and they had to buy another one.
Jeff McDowell, 50, and his wife, Ashleigh McDowell, 29, take a break from hanging blankets and clothing to dry on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, at the homeless Safe Ground near Eighth and W streets in Sacramento. They said their tent collapsed during Sunday’s storm and they had to buy another one.

Safe Ground was flooded

Across town, water was flooding into tents at the city’s Safe Ground sanctioned tent encampment near Eighth and W streets. A strong gust of wind destroyed Jeff and Ashleigh McDowell’s tent.

“For five to six hours, it was pouring down rain,” Jeff McDowell said. “The poles broke so (the tent) was crumbling on us. We had to use the last few dollars we had to get another one.”

During the storm Sunday, Ashleigh McDowell went to Target. She got the last tent there. The pair was setting it up and putting a blue tarp over it Monday, preparing for a chance of more showers later that day.

“A parking lot is no place to put people,” Jeff McDowell said. “There’s no drainage.”

Next door to the McDowells, Wendy Corron, her daughter Rhianna, 30, and their four dogs were trying to stay dry. Their tent was partially ripped in the storm, and several inches of rain gathered at the bottom, soaking clothing and food.

Wendy Corron, 54, stands behind sandbags on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, that she said she purchased during Sunday’s record-setting storm. Her tent at the Safe Ground homeless encampment at Eighth and W streets still flooded.
Wendy Corron, 54, stands behind sandbags on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, that she said she purchased during Sunday’s record-setting storm. Her tent at the Safe Ground homeless encampment at Eighth and W streets still flooded.

“The whole tent was shaking,” said Wendy Corron, 54, recalling the storm. “My service dog was freaking out. I can’t have my service dog scared.”

Corron suffers from a genetic disorder and glaucoma. She uses a wheelchair for transportation. Her and her daughter have been homeless ever since December when they were evicted from their Oak Park apartment, even though they had not missed any rent payments, Wendy Corron said.

Some tents in another area of the Safe Ground appeared to be hit with water coming down from the freeway as cars drove by in the rain.

Safe Ground guests were given cots, and many were moved to higher drier ground under the freeway overpass, said Gregg Fishman, spokesman for the city’s Department of Community Response. About 10 wanted to come to the City Hall respite center and were transported.

Melissa Donnelly, 45, and her daughter Anita, 22, had a cot, but didn’t use it because her mattress would not fit on top of it. The mattress, on the ground, was soaked by the rain and ruined.

“I was thinking, ‘I wish had money to get a motel,’” Donnelly said.

In the future, the city will try to figure out more ways to keep the Safe Ground guests dry, at that site and future sites, City Councilwoman Katie Valenzuela said. But being at Safe Ground is still better than just being out on their own, she said.

“I know Safe Ground is not a perfect solution,” said Valenzuela, who represents the area. “This is not ideal. Ideally people would be in housing. But would I rather have somebody at a Safe Ground site where they’re staffed and able to access some sort of help rather than just being on their own? Absolutely.”

City, county opened buildings

The city Saturday night opened City Hall as well as the Hagginwood Community Center as respite centers for the homeless. About 150 people spent time at City Hall through Monday, indoors and outdoors under the overhangs, and nobody was turned away, Fishman said.

The county also opened two Department of Human Assistance buildings, at 1725 28th Street and 2450 Florin Road. The county also set up an evacuation center at the Creekside Adult Center, 2641 Kent Drive.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby secured a Regional Transit bus and was going around to the camps to offer them rides to the 28th Street respite center, she said. Several people who were staying at “the island,” a longstanding camp of seniors near Discovery Park, took her up on it, she said.

The city and county faced criticism when they did not open a warming center on the night of a major storm in January. City Manager Howard Chan cited concerns that a coronavirus outbreak could occur if the city opened the centers more frequently.

Local government officials handled this storm much better than that one, Valenzuela said, but she hopes the city and county can open many more centers for future storms.

“Having four shelters open in the county doesn’t feel like enough and it’s not enough,” Valenzuela said. “But I think we’re really getting better at this.”

One man found dead

Thousands were still unable to get indoors, however.

A 27-year-old man died outside an apartment complex near Arden Fair mall, said County Coroner Kimberly Gin. His body was found under a tent or tarp about 2 a.m. Monday, she said. She has not yet released his name.

The cause and manner of his death have not yet been determined. More than 100 unhoused people have died in Sacramento County so far this year.

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