Weather, water and wetlands

Is Sacramento the next New Orleans?

Elissa Lynn presents on weather, flooding and climate change at the California State Fair in August.

Elissa Lynn presents on weather, flooding and climate change at the California State Fair in August.


I only allow myself to look at pictures and read stories of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in private, when I am alone and life is still. That way I can turn the pages slowly, touch my hand to the crumpled faces and let the tears spill as easily as the floods flowed through New Orleans. It is my way of remembering these people and their incomprehensible experience, though I don’t know a single one of them. Still, I feel the need to connect with them and hurt for them, so I don’t forget and become numb to tragedies suffered by people just like me.

Little did I know that a recent visit to the California State Fair to meet Elissa Lynn, senior meteorologist for the Department of Water Resources and one of Sacramento’s former and most popular meteorologists on News 10, would teach me that in fact I had much more in common with the people of New Orleans than I thought or hoped. And you do, too, if you live in the Sacramento metropolitan area.

I sat on the floor with the kids starring up at this super cool gigantic globe that appeared suspended in space as Elissa gave her presentation on weather, flooding and climate change. The super cool globe is actually one of only 15 in the world and a special treat for fairgoers hosted by the DWR and the National Weather Service. It is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Science on a Sphere, which uses the latest in video technology to create the illusion of any planet in our solar system, Earth’s topography, land and ocean temperature patterns and predictions, and global weather patterns at any one point in time. You can watch how storms on one side of the world impact landmasses on the other side the globe. You can watch as storms like Katrina form, then hit.“Katrina is an important story,” Elissa told the crowd. She means important to us here in California, particularly Sacramento. “There is no city in the United States in greater danger of another Katrina-type disaster than Sacramento.” Her bone-chilling statement wasn’t a presumption. Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Association of State Floodplain Managers and local agencies concur. And, folks, Folsom Dam is the No. 1 concern on the Federal Bureau of Reclamations safety priority list. That’s hugely scary.

While California is never expected to experience a hurricane like Katrina, it is Katrina’s magnitude of flooding and devastation that Sacramento faces. Our levees are holding back more water than they were ever designed to hold. As climate change increases temperatures, rising snow levels result in even larger amounts of water draining into our watersheds. The additional stress on old and inadequate levees increases our region’s flood risk.

I laid awake the other night thinking about a Katrina disaster in Sacramento. While it would likely be the result of a string of storms in rapid succession, my mind raced to the mother of all disasters: a break in the Folsom Dam. The middle of the night is usually when things that bother me become magnified, but I’m not so sure this was merely the work of boogeymen in the dark. Local flood agencies recommend Sacramentans have an evacuation plan. I suppose I was envisioning mine.

I live on a second story, which could very well protect my home from being swallowed, though my friends downstairs wouldn’t be so lucky. I wondered if I live in one of several local regions that could experience as much as 20 feet of flooding, and was haunted by the image of an unbridled sea knocking at my door, leaving us with moments to decide how to escape and survive. I realized I don’t have any flotation devices. Do I need them? Then I wondered how I would safely transport myself, my family and my three cats? I don’t own a canoe, either. So I thought about the many trees surrounding my home, and which ones I could reach from my balcony and hoist my cats onto. One of my cats is 16 years old. I don’t think she would be able to hold on. I don’t think I could leave her.

In fact, many people who died in Katrina didn’t have to. They refused to evacuate because they were not allowed to bring their pets—an unexpected element that has since required all state emergency flood-evacuation plans to account for the evacuation of pets, as well.

Kitty-corner to NOAA’s Science on a Sphere sat DWR’s exhibit: Floodplain Model Demonstrating Flood Damage Prevention Techniques. Here’s the other environmental angle. I watched a mind-numbing number of reruns as Sacramento’s model floodplain flooded over and over again, rotating between a floodplain with and without wetlands. With wetlands, the natural habitat absorbed significant amounts of excess water and provided natural flood protection. Without them, well, that’s what Newsweek’s August 13 cover story called, “environmental ignorance.”

See, urban sprawl has wiped out significant wetlands in New Orleans and Sacramento. I watched as the model without wetlands flooded Sacramento homes. Some had minor floods, enough to slosh your feet around. Some became low-level aquariums and others were submerged to the rooftops. I wondered with dread, “Which one was mine?” Which one was yours?

So, if you’re the least bit intrigued, join me tonight, September 20, for a more in-depth discussion on my conversations with Elissa about weather and global warming, on 90.3 FM, KDVS’ Radio Parallax, between 5 and 6 p.m.