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Massive Flood Could Be California's BIG ONE - Atmospheric River

California has more risk of catastrophic storms than any other region in the country — even the Southern hurricane states, according to a new study by USGS.

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California has more risk of catastrophic storms than any other region in the country — even the Southern hurricane states, according to a new study released in January 2011.

The two-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey is the most thorough effort yet to assess the potential effects of a “worst-case” storm in California.

So-called "atmospheric rivers," focus high-powered winds that drag a fire hose of tropical moisture across the Pacific Ocean, pointed directly at California for days on end. The state got a relatively tame taste of the phenomenon in December.

ARkStorm Scenario for Winter Storms in California

A conference on the subject of such ARkStorm Scenario disaster events at California State University, Sacramento, brought together the USGS researchers and emergency planners to discuss the worst-case storm and how to prepare for it.

The USGS is assessing a variety of natural hazards across the country. California was chosen for the latest project, called ArkStorm, because the state "has the potential for the biggest rainfall events in the country," Jones said.

This California assessment profiles a California "Atmospheric River" as a 500-year storm...that could happen any year. The Central Valley and the Sacramento region are likely to suffer the worst effects because they lie within a funnel for the state's biggest rivers.

Such storms have happened. One historical example in the study occurred in December and January, 1861-62. Rain fell on and off for 45 days. The researchers used soil samples to estimate that similar megastorms hit the state on at least six other occasions in the past two millenia, at 200- to 400-year intervals.

There are disagreements about the quality of the report. One professional engineer saw a draft of the study several months ago, and said it lacked detailed analysis of reservoir operations and river flow capacity.

But researchers note that none of the levees is built for a 500-year storm. The best – such as those in Yuba County's Plumas Basin and parts of Sacramento – are built for a 200-year storm.

SOLUTIONS: What should people do?

Anyone living behind levees should buy flood insurance, Jones said. Only 12% do currently.

Citizens can also support urban planning efforts to steer development away from floodprone areas, and support continued levee improvements.

The study estimates that upgrading urban levees to withstand the worst-case storm might cost $25 billion – a sum that pales next to the potential for hundreds of billions in storm damages.

Officials hope emergency planners use the ArkStorm report to prepare for the worst.

The next step is to develop a storm-rating scale similar to that used for hurricanes. It would assign a number to a storm based on predicted severity.

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Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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