Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Deluges tend to follow droughts. Are cities prepared?
The probability of an El Niño—defined as warmer water at the equator and shifting winds that can bring major weather changes—being present through the end of 2015 is now 85 percent, up from 80 percent last month, and 50 percent three months ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though those are powerful calculations, it’s still too early too tell whether the infamous climate cycle will in fact produce significant rainfall, or even flooding, over thirsty California. Even if it does, it’ll take more than one major event to “bust” the state’s historic drought.
What is certain, however, is that the state is vulnerable to floods, El Niño-related or not. At some point in the future, experts say, California will experience the phenomenon of “atmospheric rivers”: highly concentrated storms formed of moisture from across the Pacific. They hover about a mile over the ocean, and can flow, river-like, for thousands of kilometers. Though some of California’s major floods have been connected to El Niño, the majority were related to atmospheric rivers. And experts think the state is overdue for another—a massive one, in fact.
“Look at it this way: We’re just between floods,” says Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “We will have floods again, and they will be expensive and potentially dangerous. We’re only arguing about when.”
According to the PPIC, one in five Californians live in a flood-prone area. More than $575 billion worth of property is at risk, and the state is woefully unprepared. Particularly for those in the more vulnerable, 100-year flood zones (areas where there is a 1 percent chance of a flood occurring in any year), there’s a large funding gap in what’s needed to bolster the state levees. Federal standards for determining which areas require extra protection are, by many accounts, insufficient.
“There is an increasing density of people and properties in flood-prone areas, yet nothing really fundamental has changed in our flood-management systems,” says Mount.
Additionally, few Californians have flood insurance, even though it can help people bounce back faster. This has emerged as a huge issue in Texas and Oklahoma, where perhaps fewer than half of homeowners affected by May’s devastating deluges had the right kind of coverage.
Not having insurance is an issue of affordability, but it’s also an issue of awareness. Residents of well-paved, Southern Californian cities might be particularly prone to a lack of risk perception—after all, many rivers that once flowed there are now concrete flood-control channels. There are few visual reminders of the inevitability of flooding, not to mention a widespread presumption of safety: Surely, planners wouldn’t allow new development in vulnerable areas, right? Unfortunately, that’s magical thinking.
“Risk perception is a complicated thing,” Mount says. “It depends on how long it has been since last you were harmed. We are Californians. We know things could fall down from an earthquake at any moment, but we take it out of our heads.”
And, of course, it’s not easy to think about future floods while the state is grappling with drought. People are praying for rainfall, not battening down their hatches. But California’s cycle of flood and drought is just that—a cycle—and it’s almost certain to intensify with climate change. Policymakers would be wise to look into the future. And if El Niño does indeed sustain its strength, that future could be as soon as this winter.
“During the dry years, the people forgot about the rich years,” John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “and when the wet years returned, they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”