The shadow of Katrina
As we all know by now, there is no urban city in America more at risk of experiencing a devastating, New Orleans-style flood than Sacramento. The drama of this fact can’t be overstated. Despite solid advances in flood protection made this past year, our region still has the lowest flood defenses of any major metropolis in the country.
As winter settles in across the region, the question must be asked: Is Sacramento ready for a worst-case scenario?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Now it’s true that the most-likely flooding event for Sacramento would be a single levee break that would flood just one area—say, Natomas or the Pocket, two of the region’s lowest spots. Emergency officials are pretty much prepared to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.
But what if multiple levees fail? What if the downtown—with its 100,000 workday population—is flooded during peak hours? What if the Folsom Dam overflows? These possibilities exist and their consequences constantly are reviewed and dissected by local flood-control officials. But that does not amount to a master evacuation plan.
Emergency officials say the events of Hurricane Katrina brought a new level of intensity to their planning process. We do not doubt it. As a result, we have new high-tech GIS maps (geological information system) and evacuation plans based on them. We have a reverse 911 telephone-alert system that can call homeowners in target areas with emergency instructions. We have bolstered levees in key areas. We have a new emergency operation center. There’s been some flood-related training for police, firefighters and Regional Transit drivers.
But what we still don’t have is a regional plan in case of multiple failures. Complicating matters is the fact that every freeway in Sacramento contains low spots (some 3 feet under the levee level) that would quickly flood and block traffic for those trying to find higher ground. Officials say such a master evacuation plan is still in the works, but that’s not too encouraging since the rains soon will be setting in.
On the good-news side, with the recent passage of Proposition 1E and last week’s proposal by flood-control officials to create new assessment districts to raise additional taxes, we may finally get satisfactory flood protection within a decade in our region. But a decade is a long time to wait. And add to this the fact that flood potential constantly will be increasing over the many decades because, for those of us living here, global warming will translate into more snowmelt from the Sierras pouring into our rivers at faster speeds and higher volumes.
Folks, we live at the confluence of two mighty rivers; our hometown always will be dangerously flood-prone. We must, every winter, be prepared for disaster to strike. Let us hope that government planning and individual precautions, taken together, will be enough to avoid the nightmare in which Sacramento becomes ground zero for a second Katrina.