Season of Uncertainty

When it comes to winter in Sacramento, hell is high water

The flood of ’97. Sacramentans have only one question on their minds now as the wet weather returns: Will winter mark the return of the dreaded Pineapple Express? <p></p>

The flood of ’97. Sacramentans have only one question on their minds now as the wet weather returns: Will winter mark the return of the dreaded Pineapple Express?

Photo By Noel Neuburger

If it keeps on rainin,’ levee’s gonna break.

If it keeps on rainin,’ levee’s gonna break.

When the levee breaks, have no place to stay.

“When the Levee Breaks,” Led Zeppelin, 1971

Sacramento has the sort of climate that can lull you to sleep. Its springs and falls are near perfect, with clear skies and moderate temperatures. True, summers can be blisteringly hot, but the miracle of air conditioning has taken most of the bite out of the searing summer sun. In the winter, it never snows, rarely freezes and rains come infrequently. In short, it’s the kind of weather that causes people to frequently comment that there are no seasons in Sacramento.

But while these people settle in for a long winter’s nap (not that they would ever acknowledge that there is such a thing as winter around here), there are those who rest uneasily. They note with alarm that rainfall is already a half-inch above normal this year. They obsessively trudge the levees near our homes, searching for weak spots, nervously eyeing the river’s slowly rising edge. They predict a return of the dreaded Pineapple Express and grimly recount the disasters of winters past.

Christmas Eve, 1955. After a week of heavy rain, a levee breaks on the Feather River near Yuba City, 50 miles north of Sacramento. The town is nearly wiped out, and 24 people drown.

Valentine’s Day, 1986. Another week of heavy rain, and another levee north of Sacramento breaks, this time on the Yuba River. The towns of Olivehurst and Linda are evacuated. Eleven people die.

New Year’s Day, 1997. Yet another week of heavy rain, and yet another levee north of Sacramento breaks. In total, six people are killed in the flood, and property damage runs into the billions.

It seems that winters here may be a little more harsh than the 20 or so inches of average annual precipitation the region receives would indicate. One reason annual rainfall figures can be misleading is that the region sometimes gets a large amount of precipitation in a short period of time.

But there was nothing biblical about the storms preceding the floods listed above. All three more or less resulted from a week or so of heavy rain. Six inches fell during the week of the 1997 floods. It may not seem like much, but it was more than enough to strain the capacity of the reservoirs at Oroville and Folsom, particularly since the rains arrived via the aforementioned Pineapple Express.

The Express is aptly named. It’s a hot wind that blows up from Hawaii, bringing tropical heat and moisture with it. Its occurrence is, for the most part, unpredictable. When it slams into the cold winter air above Northern California, it lets go in massive torrents, simultaneously melting the Sierra Nevada snow pack and placing the entire region in peril. There was unanimous agreement among flood control experts that the only thing that saved Sacramento from catastrophe when the Express hit in 1986 and 1997 was pure, blind luck. If it had rained a few more hours either time …

Still, most Sacramentans seem relatively unperturbed by these brushes with disaster. Many still do not carry flood insurance on their homes and belongings. When the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency earlier this year mailed out ballots seeking voter approval to fund local flood control projects, the Sacramento Bee repeatedly chided residents to send them in, if they hadn’t already thrown them in the garbage with the rest of the junk mail.

This lackadaisical attitude hardly seems to square with the language of the region’s flood control proponents, who tirelessly point out that Sacramento has a lower level of flood protection than any major metropolitan area in the nation, including major river cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

Depending on whose numbers you go by, Sacramento has anywhere from 50-year flood protection to 85-year flood protection, which means at the low end of the scale, there’s a one-in-50 chance of major flooding occurring in any given year. In other words, you’re far more likely to be flooded out than to win the lottery. Experts such as the Army Corps of Engineers say 140-year protection would put the region at an acceptable risk; 200-year protection would be ideal.

Fortunately, enough people sent in ballots to overwhelmingly approve the local funding portion of the SAFCA’s proposed flood control improvements. State and federal funding approval—which accounts for 90 percent of the cost of the projects—is pending. No timetable has been laid for completion of the projects, which include increasing the size of the outlets at Folsom Dam so more water can be released during stormy periods and improving the levees for the system of creeks that run through South Sacramento. When the improvements are completed, Sacramento will have 140-year flood protection.

Even then, the future will be uncertain. The strange calculus of flood control depends upon at least one thing: that the weather holds. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past century, it’s that the weather never holds. We’ve been deluged by increasingly larger storms and weather systems with strange Latin names. Even the most ardent proponent of flood control will tell you that there’s nothing stopping this year from being the one-in-50 or the one-in-140 chance that the big storm decides to hit. When and if it does, you’ll find no better advice than that offered by Led Zeppelin:

Crying won’t help you, it won’t do you no good.

Crying won’t help you, it won’t do you no good.

When the levee breaks, momma you got to go.

In the meantime, there are some things residents can do to prepare for the coming winter, which, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, promises to be a wet one, at least through the end of January.

First of all, if you don’t already have flood insurance, get some, and make sure it covers the contents of your home as well as the home itself. In a 30-year period, the length of the average mortgage, there’s an 11 percent chance your home could be destroyed by fire. If your home is in a federally designated Special Flood Hazard Area—as nearly three-fourths of all the homes in Sacramento are—the chance that it could be destroyed by flooding in the same period is 32 percent.

If you rent, make sure your renter’s insurance covers flood damage.

Buy a nice sturdy rake. It will come in handy for unplugging the drain in the street in front of your house, which will inevitably plug up with leaves and which no one else, just as inevitably, will bother to unplug.

Purchase good rain gear, along with the same supplies you’re supposed to have on hand for an earthquake: first aid kit, canned food and a can opener, three gallons of water per person, battery-powered radio, etc.

Last but not least, make sure there’s a full tank of gas in each vehicle. Even a staid organization like the Red Cross knows there’s only one thing to do when the levee breaks.

Run like hell, for the highest ground you can find.