By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - Some residents of San Jose in Northern California who were forced out this week by flooding from a rain-swollen creek returned on Thursday to find their homes stayed dry, but nearly 4,000 people were still under evacuation orders, officials said.
The flooding in San Jose, south of San Francisco, that began on Tuesday in the city of about 1 million people was the worst it has seen since at least 1997.
Trash-strewn, murky floodwaters swamped city blocks in the hub of the high-tech Silicon Valley, engulfing the entire first floors of some homes as firefighters in inflatable boats rescued stranded residents.
At the height of the crisis, city officials ordered about 14,000 people to evacuate.
Waters began receding on Wednesday and it became clear swaths of evacuated areas were untouched, San Jose spokesman David Vossbrink said by phone. Evacuation orders were lifted in those zones and residents are returning.
Nevertheless, floodwaters inundated several neighborhoods in areas stretching from southeast to northeast of downtown, with the Rock Springs section hit hardest, Vossbrink said. It mostly consists of apartment buildings and townhomes.
More than 1,000 properties, home to 3,800 people, were still under evacuation orders on Thursday, Vossbrink said. It was unclear when they would be allowed home.
City inspectors would need to assess for damage in flooded areas and in some places workers were still pumping out water, he said. The scope of the damage also remained unknown.
Coyote Creek, the waterway that flooded, fell below flood stage on Wednesday but was still flowing at high levels a day later, Vossbrink said.
With some San Jose citizens saying warnings to evacuate came too late, Mayor Sam Liccardo has acknowledged authorities could have been quicker in alerting people.
City officials have said they were caught by surprise by the flooding, which came from Coyote Creek and followed heavy rain early this week which forced a reservoir upstream to overflow. Models suggested the creek could handle higher flow than it did, Vossbrink said.
"Models are never perfect," he added.
Ultimately, the creek reached a record height of 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) on Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service.
The Weather Service has forecast light rain will return to Northern California this weekend.
"If it's light rains we should be in good shape. I think everyone is concerned it's still winter and there will be rain to come later in the season," Vossbrink said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by James Dalgleish)