Lessons from the ‘flood’ of ’12

There was a collective sigh of relief on Sunday when the websites that showed the actual amounts of water passing through the Truckee River and the actual National Weather Service flood predictions ended the hysteria that characterized the coverage of a wet winter storm.

If there was a flood of anything, it was a flood of overwrought headlines. They proclaimed things like “5 things to know for today’s flooding in Reno, Sparks, Truckee, Northern Nevada” from the Reno Gazette-Journal, or from KOLO “Heavy rain overnight. Truckee floods in Reno/Sparks.”

In retrospect, one easy lesson to learn is that weather prediction is an imprecise science, and news media that report predictions as facts are likely to end up looking stupid. And yet, what are they supposed to do? If the media had taken a more measured approach, citizens who’ve learned over years that the media is often wrong would have been less likely to fill sandbags, and if the flood had struck, would have been caught unprepared.

That creates an opportunity, though: The city should take advantage of the work that’s already been done, and collect and stack those sandbags somewhere so that they’ll be handy in case of another “event” this winter.

One sure sign that people didn’t believe the media was the crowds of onlookers in the areas where politicians and police had asked people to avoid, both for their own safety and for the efficiency of work crews. But a moment’s thought will explain that: Since the news media is generally not credible, what do people do? They check things out for themselves. It’s a natural and understandable reaction.

If city officials want to prevent this and promote safety in the future, those observation cameras police have installed around the city could easily become internet feeds. We citizens own them, and our ability to see the same things the police see would in no way restrict police use, but it would keep some people off the street in times of danger. In fact, having tens of thousands of eyes on our city even during times when there is not a potential natural disaster could make Northern Nevada a safer place.

Another lesson to be learned is just how little action our government officials have taken to prevent floods. We’re reminded of the reason for this, from a story done in this newspaper back in February 2006, “A tale of two taxes,” regarding the special tax set up to pay for flood mitigation. At that time, Paul Urban, flood project manager, said it was important to hold off completing any flood mitigation projects. That was because doing minor repair might prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from doing (and paying for) the major repairs this community needs to overcome its folly of building a big part of our city on the flood plain.

So perhaps that’s the final lesson to be taken from the flood that never was: If Reno and Sparks want to forgo the sensational news coverage and avoid the inevitable real flood, radical steps must be taken that either protect properties that can’t be moved, move properties that can, allow more water to move through urban areas (like deepening and widening the Vista narrows), or give the water harmless places to overflow to.

It’s a river. It floods. Deal with it.