An Oakland fire crew works in a flooded area of the Oakland Zoo's main entrance. The volume and velocity of water flowing across the zoo grounds has also caused soil erosion, eucalyptus trees to fall, flooding inside various buildings, and has overwhelmed the park's drainage systems. Credit: courtesy of the Oakland Zoo

Last weekend’s storm caused flooding and road closures throughout the Bay Area, including at the Oakland Zoo, where a collapsed culvert that serves as an underground connection for Arroyo Viejo Creek caused a sinkhole—currently about 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep—at the main entrance, shutting down the park to visitors.

The zoo on Sunday announced it would reopen on Jan. 17, but zoo officials told The Oaklandside on Wednesday that establishing a firm timeline isn’t possible until the current storm runs its course. 

“At this point, it is unknown. It is at least a minimum of three weeks, and we are actively working with and collaborating with the city of Oakland and the contractor to ensure we can secure the necessary materials,” said Nik Dehejia, the zoo’s chief executive officer. “The culvert and the road are our biggest challenge at this point, and letting the next storm pass by so that this work can take place when it’s a little bit drier.”

Isabella Linares, marketing manager at the Oakland Zoo, told the Oaklandside via email this morning that “nothing dramatically” happened after last night’s storm and that the sinkhole is “stable and did not get worse overnight.”

The sinkhole is approximately 10 feet wide and approximately 10 feet deep and is impassable to vehicles, prohibiting guests from entering the zoo. Credit: courtesy of the Oakland Zoo

The sinkhole is the most visible damage at the zoo, but not the only impact that recent weather has had on the park. High winds have caused several trees to fall into walkways and animal habitat areas, and flooded drainage systems have caused mudslides on the hills next to the zoo’s parking lots.

“The speed and the volume of the torrential storm—there was no drainage system that would be able to manage this,” said Dehejia. “We have had more eucalyptus trees fall as a result of the incredibly saturated soil than we’ve ever had before.”

Dehejia said the zoo will be working on an eradication plan in the coming months to rid the property of eucalyptus trees, which have been a point of contention for years in the Bay Area. Some environmentalists have advocated for their removal on the grounds they are a non-native, invasive species that may increase fire risk in areas like the Oakland Hills. Others vehemently disagree, pointing to studies that counter the fire-risk claim.

“This is going to be incredibly important not only for the safety of the animals but the safety of guests,” he said. “Eucalyptus trees grow quickly, but they also drop fast.”

According to Dehejia, the zoo will need to wait until the current atmospheric river storm subsides to assess the full amount of damage sustained on the property. 

The zoo has a group of essential staff working on-site to safeguard the animals, along with maintenance and ground crews to assist in case emergency repair work is needed.

Crews are also working to prevent further erosion at the sinkhole by diverting water with barriers and sandbags. “Our primary focus at this point is to stabilize the existing damage,” said Dehejia.

The zoo doesn’t currently have an estimate as to how much the repairs will cost. 

“At this point, we know it’s going to be expensive. We’re collaborating with the city of Oakland and the contractor to get it fixed,” he said. “My hope is that there will be support from multiple agencies or the city to help with this.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an emergency declaration to support relief efforts across the state, including “local response and recovery efforts.” It’s unclear if this could lead to relief funds for the zoo.

The closure will cost the zoo approximately $500,000 per week in lost revenue, said Dehejia.

A major sinkhole was caused by a collapsed culvert located under the vehicle entrance to the zoo at Golf Links Road.

The zoo was given a financial boost last November when Oakland voters passed Measure Y, a parcel tax that will generate an additional $12 million per year for the park for the next 20 years. The tax will be assessed starting in July 2023. The zoo won’t see any of that money for at least another year, and it cannot be used to pay for repairs caused by the storm, said Dehejia. 

“Those funds were already earmarked for our broader accessibility and education plans to both ensure that we can draw more people into the zoo, give greater accessibility for those who can’t afford the zoo, and increase our educational programs,” he said. 

Dehejia hopes the severe weather causes more people to consider the impact of global warming. “As a society, we need to develop long-term disaster preparedness,” he said. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.