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March 12, 2017 6:00 AM

Wary Tranquillity residents watch weakened levee as flood threat recedes – for now

Where the Fresno Slough spreads like a miniature Mississippi and the tules along the banks grow head-high, the frog hunting used to be good.

Jimmy Marchini was farming cotton, alfalfa for seeds and sugar beets on land bordering the slough in the days when the frogs – delicacies at fancy restaurants – were in abundance. Word spread about the tasty amphibians and people came from all over to catch them, including a scouting troop that had the son of actor Jerry Lewis as a member.

Marchini, 68, retired from farming 10 years ago, and until Monday he had not been to the slough in a couple of years. He took visitors on a tour of the earthen levee, whose structural integrity has been tested by ever-increasing releases of water from Pine Flat Reservoir, the result of this winter’s abundant rain and snow.

He drives his gray Ford F-150 pickup fast on the rutted levee roads. Marchini was raised and still lives 2 1/2 miles from the levee on Lincoln Avenue property where his Italian immigrant grandfather, Americo Marchini, leveled 20 acres with a mule for a homestead in 1913. He is the third generation, after his grandfather and father, Bruno Marchini, who farmed land around the slough.

As the main channel appeared, he remembered the plentiful frogs it held, and what he told out-of-town frog hunters: “You’ve got to be kidding me. You came all the way from Hollywood to frog-hunt here?”

The memory made him laugh, as would others of buried cars and late-night levee patrols – and they made the slough and the levee seem less menacing.

For weeks, the slough and irrigation canals have been gorged with water. About four weeks ago, the levee developed a weak spot. An excavator the size of a combat tank got stuck in the muck trying to patch it. Fresno County sheriff’s deputies left notices on the doors of 80 homes located south of West Jefferson Avenue, preparing the residents for a possible levee break that could send thigh-high water into their homes.

The levee repair eventually was completed, lessening the flood danger, at least for a while. But the “safe for now” call came after some families in homes south of West Jefferson Avenue had packed and fled, and the threat of flooding still hangs over their heads.

Saving Jimmy Stewart

“We had to get out so fast,” said Gaylene Marchini, married to Jimmy.

“At first they told us we had 12 hours and then they said we had an hour and a half to evacuate.”

Her first thought: “I can’t lose another house.”

An electrical fire in 1991 burned the home they’d built down to its concrete foundation. They rebuilt on the same property in 1993. So the Marchinis were understandably frantic last month, but they knew what to take to safety. They filled two trailers and the trunks of cars. Photos, home movies, picture albums, computers, clothes – and any furniture that could not be stacked three feet off the floor – came out of the house.

On Monday, the Marchinis were returning televisions and a few other essentials to their home to make it livable. Jimmy Marchini had never left, staying to prevent looting, but Gaylene had bunked at a daughter’s home in Kerman for about a week.

Jimmy Marchini said they don’t have flood insurance.

“To be honest with you, a flood never occurred to us. A meteorite was more likely than a flood as far as we were concerned.”

To be honest with you, a flood never occurred to us. A meteorite was more likely than a flood as far as we were concerned.

Jimmy Marchini, Tranquillity area resident

He felt better about moving furniture back after learning from Steven Son, Fresno County deputy public works director, that they would have a 15-hour window to evacuate. But even with that cushion, Marchini’s not bringing everything back to the house. The flood danger won’t be over for months until after the snowpack has melted.

Some irreplaceable keepsakes they didn’t have time to pack will remain where they were hastily placed for safekeeping on the top shelf of a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the living room. A photograph of Jimmy Stewart is among them.

Jimmy Marchini is not sure what’s next to the late actor’s picture on the shelf, but a couple of bricks are visible.

Gaylene, 66, is beyond a huge fan of Stewart, he said. Whenever the couple traveled to Los Angeles for a Rams game (he’s a fan), she would insist they stop by the late actor’s house on the way home. “One day we were there and they were tearing the house down. He had passed away and somebody had bought the house and they were replacing it with another home. She broke into tears. … The people who were doing the demolition said she could come in, and so she got a couple of bricks from his fireplace.”

 

A trunk full of shoes

Becky Modesto, a special education teacher at Tranquillity High School, returned treasured teddy bears to a shelf in the living room of her South Amador Avenue home last week.

She and her brother got the bears when they were toddlers and “they’re a little more special” than other items that could be ruined in a flood.

Modesto, 60, has lived in the home for much of her life. Her parents moved from the Midwest in 1966 and bought the house in 1970. Her father had a job at the old Spreckels sugar plant between Tranquillity and Mendota.

Except for the years when she lived next door with her husband, the house has been her home. She delivered her daughter there 38 years ago with the help of a midwife. The years she’s lived there also are evident by the marks on a wall that measures the growth of four grandchildren, – from the youngest, 16-month-old Roman Hill, to the oldest, 18-year-old Thomas Modesto.

She has no flood insurance. The last time she renewed her policy, she was told she wasn’t required to have it. Now, she said, they told her she can’t get it. She’s counting on the county to do everything it can to protect her home, one in a row of modest houses on the street that is like a little western suburb of Tranquillity. The town of about 800 people is only two minutes away by car.

The Amador Avenue homes are south of West Jefferson Avenue – and that is fortunate.

West Jefferson is “the line in the sand” for Fresno County.

A serious levee break could flood a large swath of fertile farmland to the north of West Jefferson that is bordered by James Road to the east and Tuolumne Avenue and the Mendota Wildlife Area to the west. The crop loss is hard to estimate, but it could be in the millions of dollars.

It’s the homes south of West Jefferson, though, that Fresno County has pledged to protect.

The county has built up a 1-foot berm along the north side of West Jefferson that should hold back floodwaters, Son said. The berm could be built up to 3 feet within hours, if needed, he said.

And being a woman, this case was just shoes.

Becky Modesto, Tranquillity area resident

Modesto was teaching when her daughter, Darlene Hill, texted to tell her a sheriff’s deputy had come to warn them about the potential for flooding and an evacuation. Modesto was skeptical that the water could reach her home. But to be safe, she took some things to her mother’s house in Fresno and she packed clothes in suitcases that she left in the trunk of her car.

She unpacked the clothes last Sunday, but brought out the empty suitcases to show how many she’d packed.

“And being a woman, this case was just shoes,” she said, dragging one of the largest bags into the living room.

Tranquillity woman keeping suitcases out, just in case of levee break

Becky Modesto, 60, believes that "a house is a house, but the family and the people in it are the things that are really important." She is keeping her suitcases out in case she has to evacuate if the Tranquillity levee breaks and floods the home she has lived in since since 1970.

Silvia Flores The Fresno Bee

The evacuation advisory said residents should turn off the gas and the electricity if they evacuated and Modesto said that gave her pause. She had a freezer full of food that could have spoiled. And she had a recycling container that could have floated away, leaving a mess.

The entire levee is susceptible to breaks, not just the weakened section that’s been repaired, but Modesto found it difficult to visualize.

“The levee’s always been here,” she said.

In her teens, “Pete’s Beach” at the levee was the place to hang out. It had picnic tables and a sandy area, perfect for suntanning. She swam in the slough. And she water-skied – towed on a rope tied to a pickup truck on the levee road.

A Chevy in the levee?

In Tranquillity it seems everybody knows everybody – and everybody knows Pete’s Beach – but it’s especially familiar to Jimmy Marchini. His uncle, Pete Marchini, built a dock and picnic tables and hauled in sand in the 1950s.

His uncle dismantled the beach years ago because people were leaving too much trash, he said.

There’s little that Marchini does not know about the slough and levee. The family maintained it for years.

He drove a “Chevy to the levee” (yes, he confirmed) almost every day of his adult working life. He served two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War (he was stationed in Germany), and returned to help his father run the family farming business.

A breach in the levee was always a possibility. And it was Marchini’s job to find tiny leaks and fix them before they grew. He would drive the levee from dark to dawn listening to ’60s music. Now he plays classic rock drums in the band Panoche Creek.

He’d shine a spotlight out the driver’s window to illuminate the earthen banks. “If I spotted a leak or seepage coming through,” he said, “then I would go get the dozer wherever it was parked up here and bring it back to dig it out and repack it.”

He’s seen the slough fuller than it is now and the levee held. He’s not sure why it failed this winter. Years of drought maybe weakened it.

The levee’s old. The Tranquillity Irrigation District, the second oldest in the county, formed in 1918, and general manager Danny Wade said the levee banks were probably built between 1900 and 1910.

They built this entire area up with mules, plows. We still dig up mule shoes.

Jimmy Marchini

Marchini said there are clues to the levee’s age: “They built this entire area up with mules, plows. We still dig up mule shoes.”

At the site of the recent levee repair it was impossible for him to shake off the past.

The wild willows are long gone.

“My dad and I loved wildlife. And so we used to let these wild willows grow. They didn’t interfere with anything,” he said. “There used to be foxes up here. And we loved them. My dad and I would come up here sometimes at night with a spotlight just so we could see the animals.”

Marchini knew secrets about the levee, too – like where the classic cars are buried.

He and his father used discarded vehicles and concrete and tin to shore up weak areas. So is there a Chevy in the levee?

“There’s going to be a lot of classic cars come out of that levee if it goes,” he said.

Tranquillity Irrigation District workers had hauled dirt from nearby fields and packed it on the banks of the levee to repair the damage. Marchini approved of the work. “I would say they’ve done a very good job,” he said.

But an unease remained. A new break could happen anywhere along the levee. And his home could be in the water’s path.

“So a big gush of water and who knows where it’s going to go,” Marchini said. “All we know is it’s going to follow the law of physics and wherever that takes it, that’s where it’s going to go.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

 
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