Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sacramento Flooding, Part Three

In a continuation of the stories in the Bee series on flooding that began this past Sunday, these two include a personal account and an editorial.

Stuart Leavenworth: River City's kinship with the Crescent City
By Stuart Leavenworth -- Associate Editor Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, October 30, 2005

It is hard to fathom the power of unleashed water. When it topples a levee during a flood, it rockets downward with explosive force, tossing cars on top of houses, and houses off their foundations. It then demolishes everything in its path, except for a few strings of Mardi Gras beads.

I saw the beads repeatedly the other week while visiting the remnants of New Orleans. In neighborhoods of the rich and poor, across three-fourths of the city, homeowners had returned home, wept and tried to salvage what they could. Some had found only their Mardi Gras necklaces. They spread them in the sun to dry and hung them from dead trees like Christmas ornaments.

Since my return to Sacramento, I tend to hear the same comments:
Oh, those poor people. ... I can't imagine. ... It sounds awful there.

Such comments strike the right notes of sympathy while retaining an air of detachment. For people in Sacramento - or for that matter, St. Louis, Kansas City or other cities behind levees - the New Orleans flood seems like a faraway disaster, much like the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

People who live in deep flood plains tend to develop a collective amnesia. Sure, they might recall or have heard about the 1986 flood, which nearly inundated Sacramento and caused a levee to rupture in Yuba County, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. They might be familiar with the 1997 flood, which caused another levee break in Yuba County, killing three people and driving 120,000 from their homes.

But for many Sacramentans, Yuba County is as foreign as Louisiana. Few people have seen these places through the eyes of local rescue crews, who plucked people from rooftops in both Yuba and New Orleans. Nor have they seen it through the eyes of Les Harder, a local flood control engineer who recently returned from New Orleans.

Harder, part of a National Science Foundation team investigating the city's levee failures, was profoundly affected by his visit. Like many of his colleagues, he once tried to maintain the cautious, studied detachment of a professional engineer.

Now he seems like a different man.

"It is almost like someone dropped an atomic bomb on the city, without the fire," said Harder, who heads the flood management division of the California Department of Water Resources. "You go there, and it covers block after block, for miles and miles. You see houses jammed against houses, cars overturned and mold and mud everywhere."

As Harder notes, the two towns differ in many respects. Unlike Sacramento, most of New Orleans sits below sea level. Unlike the River City, the Crescent City has flood walls on top of its levees, and is flanked by an estuary - Lake Pontchartrain - that can create enormous storm surges during a hurricane.

On the other hand, both Sacramento and New Orleans are ringed by levees. The levees are the artifacts of early settlers. Sure, these earthen mounds have been reinforced over the years, but they were never designed and built to any modern standards.

Moreover, says Harder, Sacramento is more vulnerable than New Orleans, at least when you consider the frequency of potential storms.

Based on pre-Katrina calculations, New Orleans had a one-in-250 chance of flooding in any given year. Sacramento, by contrast, has about a one-in-100 risk each year - a threat unmatched in any U.S. city of its size.

For the rest of the story:

Editorial: Responsibility time
As they count bodies in New Orleans, issues of who should be accountable
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, October 30, 2005

They are still counting the dead in New Orleans, a gruesome task that will take months.

Authorities have found more than 1,050 bodies and identified about 800 of them. Most were elderly - a shocking 37 percent were older than 75 years - trapped inside their homes after the levees broke. Many died in poor areas on the east side of town, but scores also died in more affluent neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
As more bodies are uncovered and more property owners return to their mud-soaked homes, the recrimination is building. Lawyers are fueling this backlash by posting yard signs in New Orleans that say, "Class action lawsuit, dial this number...." Federal and state officials are blaming each other for the slow effort to recover bodies.

Following any disaster, there always is a tendency to mourn then engage in a flurry of fingerpointing.

For the rest of the Editorial :