By Kevin L. King | Special to The OBSERVER
OPINION – When Hurricane Ida hammered New Orleans recently it wasn’t just a distant catastrophe comfortably 2,225 miles away from Sacramento. For those of us in the flood protection business, the disaster hits extremely close to home because our region, specifically the Natomas flood plain, ranks as the next most flood-vulnerable metropolitan area in the nation.
Given California’s current drought and raging forest fires, it would be easy to dismiss this reality. But we cannot afford to be complacent. With climate change, it is not a matter of if, but when, Sacramento will be subjected to a flood of biblical proportions.
Federal rules require 100-year flood protection, which is a storm that has a 1-in-100 chance of happening every year, or a 26 percent chance cumulatively over a 30-year mortgage. Natomas was only rated for a 33-year storm.
New Orleans’ misfortune is Sacramento’s wake-up call. It’s an opportunity to educate and remind the public of the need to prepare for our eventual massive flood – whether it occurs in several years or two decades from now.
The stakes couldn’t be any higher. More than 100,000 people live in the Natomas flood plain area, which remains a high growth area for residential, business and agriculture. This is a matter of life and death. Moreover, a major flood would shut down Interstate 5 and paralyze our entire downtown region. It would grind air travel to a halt, making it impossible for flights in and out of Sacramento International Airport. It would interrupt the flow of trucks carrying food, consumer goods and other freight.
A failure to prepare could result in loss of life, decimated housing and communities, and economic harm in the billions of dollars. We have seen this before: in 1986 a vigorous storm system created a Pineapple Express that unleashed unprecedented amounts of rain on northern California. In Sacramento, nearly 10 inches of rain fell in an 11-day period. The overwhelming floodwaters tore bridges from their foundations and punched through levees. The Northern California flood resulted in 13 deaths, 50,000 people evacuated and over $400 million in property damage.
With this in mind, the news from Louisiana helps validate and guide what needs to be done here in the greater Sacramento area.
After Hurricane Katrina, there was a major push to rebuild the levee system. This was obviously critical but it was not enough. Hurricane Ida exposed that New Orleans had not adequately upgraded its pumps, drainage system, back-up power supplies and other infrastructure needs essential to maximum flood protection.
Our flood control district is responsible for making sure everything humanly possible is being done to mitigate and prevent the next big flood here. Like New Orleans, our levees are currently being improved and fortified. But as we have seen, that is only part of the solution.
Our district recently completed an audit of our infrastructure, which hasn’t seen major upgrades in the last 30 years. We have identified critical needs and required improvements to our internal levee and pumping systems. In the coming two years, these projects will become more concrete and the public informed about the benefits of infrastructure upgrades – as well as the dire consequences of neglecting these improvements.
What is clear is that the Sacramento Region has again been served notice that we can no longer afford to rely on an aging flood control system. The threats are ominous. The benefits are indisputable. The urgency to act is something all Sacramento residents and businesses can support.
We need to make every effort now so that Sacramento does not become the next New Orleans.
Kevin L. King is General Manager of RD1000, providing flood protection and public safety to residents, businesses, schools, and agriculture since 1911.