Friday, November 24, 2006

Tempting Fate Indeed

The more I have studied local flood issues the more perplexing the reasons why the solutions to the flood problems facing the Sacramento and American River Watershed communities—building Shasta Dam to its original engineered height would have tripled its storage and building Auburn Dam—weren’t followed through to completion when proposed decades ago.

Our report on water on our website addresses the Auburn Dam and may also provide insight to Shasta.

In the meantime, trying to figure out ways to run away from the certain floods seems appropriate, but still an unfortunate reflection about sadly lacking public leadership in the past one hopes becomes more effective in the future.

Tempting fate: City still lacks evacuation blueprint
Disagreements on plan to funnel Sacramentans to safety in a flood.
By Deb Kollars - Bee Staff WriterPublished 12:00 am PST Friday, November 24, 2006

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, emergency leaders in Sacramento realized they had a potential nightmare on their hands: They were not prepared to move tens of thousands of people out if a giant flood hit.

It remains an urgent question, given no major city in America is more at risk of a New Orleans-style flood than Sacramento.

More than a year later, those entrusted with helping Sacramento survive a disaster have made progress, but still are not fully prepared for a massive evacuation.

They have new maps and telephone alert systems, a new emergency operations center, new reviews, new consultants, new training.

But the state has yet to finish a "mass evacuation guidance document" that has been in the works for months as a tool to help local jurisdictions.

A regional mass evacuation plan for eight counties in the Sacramento area is closer to completion, though it will not be finished before the upcoming rainy season arrives.

And there are streams of doubt and disagreement running among emergency planners about how much detail is needed in plans, whether big shelters are ready, which way the traffic would go, and what size floods should be contemplated.

Some, including those at the state level, believe a massive citywide evacuation may not be executable, or even necessary because the most likely flood scenario for Sacramento would be a levee break that would inundate one area, such as Natomas, but leave others dry.

"We cannot envision a situation that would require the complete evacuation of a city in California," said Eric Lamoureux, chief spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

Lamoureux noted that cities in the Gulf region had to move more than 2 million people across entire states in the face of hurricanes. In contrast, Sacramento has about 250,000 at risk of flooding, more in the broader region; it is unlikely all would face inundation at once, and they would have to travel only a short distance, say to Fair Oaks or Davis, to reach high ground.

Rick Martinez, Sacramento County's emergency coordinator, agreed. Floods, he said, are so unpredictable that agencies should focus on streamlining response procedures rather than mapping out every evacuation path that might be needed.

"It's a moving target," he said. "We are working on plans that have less detail and are more process driven."

Jerry Colivas, Sacramento's emergency services manager, holds a different a view.

Colivas believes agencies also should be planning -- in detail -- for more devastating events such as multiple levee breaks or a failure at Folsom Dam that could leave huge sections of the city under water.

"We really have to be prepared for the worst, worst, worst case scenario," Colivas said. "My mantra is everyone gets out alive."

Colivas is pushing for specific plans covering numerous flood scenarios. One that haunts him is a levee break that would flood the downtown on a weekday, when more than 100,000 workers would be in danger. Another is a break or overtopping at Folsom Dam, where the rush of water would be swift and overwhelming, in some scenarios reaching the downtown core within eight to 12 hours.

Like other leaders, Colivas admits he doesn't have all the answers. But during the past year, the questions have sharpened notably:

What if two cars collide in a downtown parking garage, blocking everyone else from getting out in an evacuation?

Would light-rail trains running every 10 minutes out of downtown carry enough people to make up for the time that fleeing drivers would lose waiting for trains to cross streets?

How to deal with the low spots on every single freeway serving the Sacramento area?