Last week, after several days of rain and flooding flooded the roads, Allensworth residents grabbed their shovels and put their tractors to work.
The makeshift barriers they built out of sandbags, gravel and loose sand held back the water.
Now, the town of nearly 600 people northwest of Bakersfield faces another threat — a broken levee and another storm expected in a few days.
Residents were back at work Saturday morning shoveling sand into a 3-foot-high berm.
Allensworth, State the first city founded by black Americans is a predominantly Hispanic community. Some residents work on nearby farms, planting and harvesting almonds, pistachios, grapes and pomegranates.
Local leaders say they need help from county, state and local officials to protect their city.
“This is becoming a major crisis for our community,” said Kayode Kadara, 69, who worked with neighbors on flood protection. “We have a lot of caring people in this community. And we all band together to help each other.”
The low-lying, unincorporated community lies on the Tulare Lake watershed that was drained for agriculture in the early 1900s. Recent storms have caused flood waters to flow through canals and ditches and flow over farmland to the old lake bed.
On Saturday, a helicopter flew over the broken levee and dropped loads of sand to plug it while crews used machinery to contain the leak, said Jack Mitchell, Deer Creek Flood Control District supervisor.
He said the levee had been almost completely repaired, but flooding was still a major concern.
Mitchell said he believes the levee breach was caused by someone intentionally cutting through the earthen barrier with machinery.
“They did it with an excavator with a big hopper. We tracked it down,” Mitchell said. “We know who did it.”
Mitchell said he hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other authorities will step in to “take charge” and help the region “start to get rid of this floodwater.”
“We need help from higher ups because the water is just getting there from another creek and it’s going to hit us hard,” he said.
Some farm landowners tried to keep floodwaters out of their acreage, Mitchell said, including one who used much of the equipment to block the canal.
“They just don’t want to give up any land, but they’d rather flood everywhere except where it’s supposed to go,” Mitchell said.
More than a dozen residents stood and talked near the swollen ditch.
Beside them lay the gravel berm they had tried to build two days earlier near the entrance to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.
In the distance, a red emergency helicopter flew back and forth, apparently dropping loads of sand to repair a broken dam.
The stormy brown water has settled several feet below the levee, but residents are concerned they may have to evacuate when the next flood surge occurs. They said several families had already packed up and left the low-lying houses.
Kadara’s son, Tekoa Kadara, said more than 100 residents met at the elementary school Friday night to discuss their plans to avert disaster.
“We’re just talking about how we can save our community because no one is coming to help us,” said Kadara, 41, executive director of the Allensworth Community Development Corporation.
“We need a temporary reservation right now,” Kadara said. “We need to stop the water coming into the city.”
Floodwaters from the White River flowed past the town, and Kadara said people were also concerned about water flowing out of Success Lake.
When residents saw water flowing toward their community Thursday, they said they used sandbags, rocks and plywood to block the flow through two culverts along Highway 43, near the BNSF railroad tracks.
“We did a really good job of temporarily solving the problem. But for some reason, the railway blocked,” Kadara said.
Kayode Kadara said the BNSF railroad sent contractors who came with equipment and removed the sandbags and plywood.
He said he was concerned that community residents did not receive the help they needed to protect themselves.
“They wouldn’t let that water get into the white city,” Kadara said, standing near a flood-swollen ditch where the water flowed through a pipe under the road.
Residents said that when they were initially working to close the culvert, they picked up some rocks that had been piled up next to the railroad, but crews told them to stop. So they brought their own sandbags and plywood to put up barriers.
Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the residents came onto the railroad property and their actions put the railroad infrastructure at risk.
“It was the wrong approach,” Kent said. She said railroad officials were concerned that clogging the culverts would cause water to wash away railroad property “and we could give way.”
“I just think they put a lot of people at risk by doing what they did that night,” Kent said. “I totally sympathize and understand what they’re trying to do, but maybe they should focus on protection, putting sand around their property.”
She said BNSF is open to hearing ideas from the community and is working with the county and state to protect rail infrastructure.
“It slowed the flow of water in their tracks, for God’s sake. How can that be dangerous?’ Kayode Kadara said.
Kadara, a retired U.S. Postal Service regional director, works as an advisor to the Allensworth Progressive Association, a local nonprofit that leads community projects.
He said Allensworth urgently needs help from county, state and local flood officials. Farming landowners also need to be part of the discussion so they can help direct flood waters away from the community, he said.
The community has a long history of dealing with flood waters.
Jose “Chepa” Gonzalez, 50, said he remembers the flood in 1979, when he was 7 years old. His father was wearing rubber boots and wading through the water, lifting him up to join the others on the back of the dump truck.
His father stayed behind to try to protect their home, ramming the old Plymouth to stop the leak at the canal bank, where people had piled rocks and dirt, Gonzalez recalled.
Gonzalez said that repair is still visible as a bulge in the levee.
“I have to do what my father did back then,” said Gonzalez, who hauled sand in a small tractor to help build the berm.
He said he planned to load his cattle onto a trailer and take them to his sister’s house on the hill. Other people in the community have goats, pigs and chickens.
Raymond Strong, a resident who once played in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons, also remembers the year 1979 when his grandfather died in a flood along with another man.
“It’s really scary,” Strong said. “When the water does come, it will uproot people.”
He said he plans to stay and hopes the city will get the resources it needs.
“Thank God we have neighbors,” Strong said. “It’s amazing to see them come together.”
As the residents stood and talked by the flowing ditch under the clear sky, Kayode Kadara pointed to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in the distance. In the spring, the historically deep snow will melt and sink to the bottom of the valley.
“Once it gets warmer and starts to flow, we’re going to have a big problem,” he said. “We’ve got another two or three months of what we’re facing right now.”