Petaluma family thankful for new home after flood ruined last one

Aurelio Briceño sat in his wheelchair in his brand-new living room earlier this month, filled with gratitude and basking in the glory of having a home again.

A little over a year ago, Briceño and his family had to be rescued by boat after an atmospheric river dumped six inches of rain over two days, bringing knee-deep water to the small East Court cul-de-sac and damaging several homes as well as the neighboring M. Maselli & Sons hardware store and salvage yard at 519 Lakeville St.

The Briceño home, where Aurelio lived 30 years with his wife Maria and son Juan, was hit hardest of all, with the entire three-bedroom house and most of their belongings wiped out.

That was Oct. 24, 2021. But by April of this year, the family was able to return to a newly built modular home on the lot where the former one had been.

“They really love this place,” said Briceño’s granddaughter, Diana Gutierrez, standing inside the new home on Nov. 10. “It’s like a dream come true for them.”

It was a whirlwind trip to get there, starting with the storm itself, which overwhelmed the city’s flood-control infrastructure and left their home, and the Maselli lot next door, three feet underwater.

Suddenly without a home, the family spent months afterward living in the Hampton Inn or with other family members. Meanwhile, city officials hired Belfor Property Restoration to evaluate damage in the neighborhood, talk with residents about their repair needs, and to conduct needed repairs.

Overall the flooding caused some form of damage to 13 homes and businesses, said Christopher Bolt, the city’s director of public works and utilities. Also, he said, the damage assessment had revealed building issues – such as asbestos and “unpermitted improvements” – that complicated rebuilding efforts.

“So the city worked with our nonprofit partners to assist in improving the quality of life for some of these residents,” Bolt said. As of May of this year, he said, all of the flood-related damages around East Court were fully remediated and all residents had returned to their homes.

To get that done in such a short time, the city of Petaluma paid out $1.3 million from city insurance funds to affected residents and businesses for hotel bills, damaged property and evacuation costs, according to city records obtained by the Argus-Courier. Affected property owners, including the Masellis, had held the city responsible for missteps in flood preparation and lack of maintenance to nearby pumping stations.

Since then, Bolt said, the city’s Public Works department has implemented a number of safeguards to make sure it doesn’t happen again, including installation of pull chains and other measures in case floodgates become stuck. The pumping stations do not need replacing, he said.

Ultimately, the largest city payout of $400,000 went to M. Maselli & Sons, while the new Briceño home – which features an open-floor design, ADA-friendly doorways and a wheelchair-accessible bathroom – cost about $246,000 to build.

Among the new home’s improvements, the foundation has been raised about four feet off above ground level, giving them an advantage should the floodwaters come again. And thanks to the help of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Petaluma, a wheelchair lift was installed beside the front porch so that Aurelio and Juan, who also uses a wheelchair, can easily get in and out.

The Briceños also received about $9,600 in reimbursements from the city for their long hotel stays while out of a home. That was only a small portion of the hotel and Airbnb invoices the city paid out overall, which totaled more than $152,000, according to city records.

The insurance money from the city was even used to buy all new furniture, Gutierrez said, as Maria proudly walked through the hallway to the back of the house to show her decorating skills in the master bedroom.

Gutierrez, a full-time social worker who was authorized to help her grandparents and uncle with the paperwork processing associated with flood repairs, was appreciative of city staff’s collaborative efforts with the family and other affected residents. She said staff was very responsive and kept her updated on all the details of the rebuild.

“I have nothing but positive things to say,” Gutierrez said. “They (did) everything they said they would do, and more.”

As for Aurelio Briceño – whose storied life in Petaluma began in the 1980s after he immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico to work in America as a farmhand – he couldn’t be more pleased.

When asked about his favorite part of the new home, his answer was laconic:

Todo,” he said – everything.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5208.

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