Unheeded warnings past and furure – and their big consequences
■ By Thomas D. Elias / Columnist
Ask the residents of San Jose’s drying-out Rock Springs neighborhood and other nearby areas if it pays to ignore warnings about future disasters that seem in normal times to be nothing more than distant, negative fantasies.
During the heavy rains of February, when a crisis caused by a poorly-built spillway at the Oroville Dam drew worldwide headlines, the San Jose neighborhood and areas around it suffered at least $50 million of avoidable damage to private property and about $23 million in public property damage. Some estimates of the total toll come to more than $100 million.
That’s in addition to $22 million in emergency fixes the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District now propose.
Avoidable? Unnecessary? You bet. Even as 14,000 residents of the flood plain of San Jose’s Coyote Creek were forced to flee, local water district officials remembered their early 2000’s dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with managing flood controls all over the country.
But the Corps opted not to work on Coyote Creek. After five years of negotiating with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to create levees and other improvements keeping water away from low-lying Rock Springs, the Corps begged off. It cited an obscure rule forbidding projects when their cost is more than the likely damage from a single major flood.
Oops. The cost of the improvements protecting Rock Springs would have been about $7.4 million. That’s less than 10 percent of the damage inflicted by Coyote Creek in February.
The total of actual damages and possible new flood control measures make the 2003 statement of Lt. Col Michael McCormick, then the Army Corps’ district commander in San Francisco, look silly: “The economic evaluation found the benefits, i.e. the reduction in flood damages, were not significant enough to justify the costs of improvement,” he said.
McCormick is long gone, but residents are still trying to replace or repair cars that were flooded up to the hoods and homes and contents flooded and muddied well up their interior walls. There’s also the coming issue of mold.
In a way, this was similar to what happened at Oroville, where environmental groups warned in 2005 that inadequate spillways could cause damage to the dam itself and lead to Feather River flooding downstream. The fix they recommended would have addressed precisely the problems behind this winter’s almost 200,000 evacuations and would have cost far less than the $200 million to $600 million that repairs and restructuring will now run. But the state Water Project, which operates the dam, and the water districts benefiting most from supplies it captures, downplayed potential damages.
Both scenes resemble the old television commercials where a mechanic held up an oil filter while intoning “You can pay me now (for this), or you can pay me later (much more).”
Californians will be paying much more now than if warnings had been heeded.
Other warnings exist all over California. More than 1,000 bridges need seismic updating to avoid major damage in earthquakes. Potential future consequences of ignoring that kind of warning were clear in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which knocked down freeway bridges and impeded traffic for months. Also in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which led to the hyper-expensive rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and destroyed the top level of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland, killing 39 persons.
There are also many warnings about dams: An example is Santa Clara County, where five of 10 existing reservoirs cannot be filled to more than two-thirds capacity for fear of seismic collapse. Wasted capacity there could provide enough water for 280,000 persons for a full year.
And there are warnings about many thousands of homes and buildings not yet retrofitted to withstand the next large nearby earthquake. This may cost homeowners several thousand dollars each, exact amounts varying, but a fix could keep them in homes that might otherwise be red-tagged as unfit for human occupation.
None of these other items are drawing anything like the emergency response they should, nor will they until or unless there’s a crisis.
At which point, like Coyote Creek and the Oroville Dam, they’ll have to be fixed fast, at a much higher cost than today’s estimates.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net