Semitrucks ride along Interstate 880 freeway in East Oakland
Semitrucks ride along Interstate 880 highway in East Oakland Credit: Amir Aziz

The atmospheric river bringing torrential downpours to the Bay Area today is being closely monitored by local, county, and state agencies for its potential to flood major roads, including highways. In Oakland, Caltrans told The Oaklandside it is aware of spots on I-580 that could flood again, including the freeway between 35th Avenue and High Street. 

On March 10, the state transportation agency closed that section of I-580, which runs through the Laurel and Fruitvale neighborhoods of East Oakland. The closure lasted around 10 hours, between 2 a.m. and noon, and caused serious traffic jams. This led to desperate drivers turning their vehicles around on the freeway and going up onramps illegally, nearly driving onto incoming drivers. 

This same section of I-580 has seen multiple destructive fires, including a blaze in September that started in the brush along the embankment and damaged several homes in Laurel. Within a month, Caltrans cleared almost all vegetation to prevent another fire. 

People who experienced the flooding last Friday wondered whether the lack of vegetation on the hillside surrounding I-580 made it easier for water to flood into the freeway due to poor moisture absorption. But according to Caltrans, the flooding was not related to the cutting of vegetation. Instead, it was the heavy volume of the rains which flooded pump stations, which are usually located in or near viaducts or underpasses. These pumps lift stormwater from the road, into a pump station, and then into the city’s drainage system. 

“The volume of the rain was such that the pumps were overwhelmed. It was more water than our pumps could handle. We brought in additional pumps in response,” said a Caltrans spokesperson. 

Many road pumps also now include monitoring systems that allow public works and transportation agencies to know exactly when a pump will become flooded. Caltrans did not say how many of Oakland’s pumps include these systems.

Water pump failures off highways have led to severe flooding all over the country in recent years including in Arizona and Texas

The area between 35th Avenue and Fruitvale Avenue in Oakland has flooded at other times in recent months, including during the atmospheric river rainfalls in January. Just like last week, it was the pumps’ inability to handle the heavy rain that caused the flooding. 

Caltrans told The Oaklandside it is following emergency protocols during the storms to ensure its staff is aware of potential flooding. The agency’s maintenance workers usually move into 12-hour shifts during heavy rains to respond to road conditions as fast as possible. 

Oakland residents can stay up to date with roadway conditions on the highway through Caltrans’ QuickMap app. The state agency also tracks city roadways that are legally under its jurisdiction, such as International Boulevard. The city of Oakland does not have a city-wide live app covering live roadway conditions on city streets. Alameda County has a page that updates the conditions of the roads that are under their jurisdiction in and around Oakland.

Heavy rainfall is expected to continue throughout the week in Alameda County and local agencies are recommending people mind flood and wind warnings and never attempt to drive through a flooded road.  

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.