Levees don’t vote

California hasn’t done much to prepare for worst-case scenarios

On the outskirts of Sacramento sit several massive residential projects that local leaders allowed to be built in a big flood plain. When I see those homes, I marvel at how little California is doing to avoid massive loss of life and property when a worst-case disaster finally hits.

If you think California is not Louisiana, think again. The “plans” in our big cities for preparing against and responding to a cataclysm are not substantially better than those in New Orleans and Louisiana.

As one longtime local politician, Victor Mow, of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, explained to me, “There are two kinds of disaster planning: planning for the front end and planning for the back end.”

The back end is what communities do in reaction to disaster—for example, what officials will do to ensure that their first responders don’t resign en masse, like New Orleans cops did to save their (foolishly) non-evacuated families.

How good is California’s back-end planning? Let’s just say nobody has a plan if too many nurses or cops flee their jobs.

What about our front-end planning?

In Louisiana, New Orleans politicians, the state government and the congressional delegation to Washington, D.C., all agreed to build levees to a Category 3 hurricane level. Then, they fully built out the New Orleans levees to that plan.

Let’s be clear. When a long-predicted Category 4 or 5 hurricane finally hit, Louisiana officials expected the levees to be wiped out. As noted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the “built out” levees performed “as anticipated” by everyone involved.

You think California is different? Our local officials are preparing very little infrastructure to handle even a 7-magnitude quake. Mow says the debate still needs to be fully engaged. “Do we build to withstand a 7 or go even higher?” asks Mow. “And on the back end, all our emergency plans at the local level rely heavily on the fact that hospitals will be available. All of our plans.”

Such honest words should be sobering for our 120 state legislators, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and powerful mayors like Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom.

It might help if these leaders saw the latest poll about whom Americans blame for New Orleans. Ignored by many media outlets, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted through September 6 found that the largest group of Americans, 38 percent, blamed “nobody.” The second-largest group, 25 percent, blamed local and state officials.

This is amazing in light of strenuous efforts by many in the national media to excuse the incompetence of New Orleans’ oddball mayor and the state’s plodding governor.

The poll is a reminder that Americans expect local officials to have highly localized, effective, institutional-memory-based, solid plans for worst-case scenarios.

Michael Shires, a public-policy professor at Pepperdine University, told me, “If the state of Louisiana had wanted to spend the millions to withstand a Category 5, they would have been listened to. The decision was made to build to a Category 3, and there was not a huge dissent.”

In California, Shires says “placement of assets” in anticipation of a worst-case disaster is among our most costly core problems—stocking warehouses around Los Angeles with water, for instance, in case the big one hits, our levees fail and saltwater gushes into water relied upon by 20 million people. Shires worries that after the big one, “urban search-and-rescue teams who go door-to-door” won’t get anywhere near crushed buildings in time; few cities have human and equipment assets in place.

He says one “placement of assets” success in California is pre-deployment of equipment and crews during fire season. “But, for the low-probability events like a massive earthquake, our local areas have not gotten ready,” he said.

If levees rupture here, how will we save the Delta’s vast below-sea-level agriculture and thousands of workers? We won’t. We only recently dried up several thousand flooded acres near Stockton after “rodent burrowing” helped destroy an aging levee.

Mow notes that aside from our agricultural engine below sea level, massive flood plains in populated Sacramento and Stockton are another problem. Stockton has admirably completed work to protect against a 100-year flood. But Mow said, “How do we prepare for worst-case devastation if the San Andreas fault goes?”

Years ago, Louisiana saved hundreds of millions of dollars by not insisting on “building out” for a worst-case hurricane its politicians all knew would come.

Today in California, Shires says only a special bond measure or dedicated tax—one that politicians can’t raid—can provide the local billions needed to avert thousands of deaths and mega-billions in property damage.

I’m a fiscal conservative. I hate pie-in-the sky, futuristic plans. But there is one worst-case scenario California should spend good money on: the one disaster that we all know is coming.