Notorious for its earthquakes and Prop 19 — the state of California could be in for another major disappointment. Scientists and government officials are currently bracing for a storm that has the potential to be far more devastating than any earthquake and is as much of a buzz-kill as a Slayer album. Last Thursday, the United States Geological Survey released its findings concerning a “superstorm” that could devastate California. This storm could potentially cause damages up to $300 billion.

For those of you who may be quick to jump on the global warming bandwagon, bear in mind that this has happened before — quite a few times actually. The most recent California superstorm took place in 1861. That storm lasted for more than one month and flooded California so severely that the state capital was temporarily moved to San Francisco once Sacramento had been turned into an island. Scientists estimate that storms of this same magnitude had hit the Golden State at least six times prior to the storm in 1861.

These storms are caused by atmospheric rivers, which are massive jets of warm air that contain large amounts of moisture and cause extensive flooding due to extreme rain and wind. By observing sediment buried in the coastal regions of California, researchers have been able to get a good grasp on how these storms work. Using this information, engineers working for the USGS created computer-generated models that predict how the superstorm will act. The USGS has also laid out plans of action that state and federal officials can use in their preparations for an impending storm.

I mentioned earlier that you shouldn’t be too quick to blame this situation on global warming, but it shouldn’t be discounted entirely. Increases in temperatures can accelerate the development of the atmospheric rivers just as the increases can cause more extreme weather patterns throughout the world. But because this isn’t California’s first encounter with a superstorm, it’s not unreasonable to believe that this particular storm isn’t entirely the fault of greenhouse gases.

As we all witnessed with Hurricane Katrina, there are some major implications of massive floods. Power outages, loss of communication tools, landslides and polluted water supplies are some of the many problems — as noted by the USGS — which California residents would face as a result of such a storm. Perhaps the most important section of the USGS’s report concerns the evacuation of the affected areas. The approximate number of people who would have to be evacuated due to flooding is estimated to be about 1.5 million. It seems that swift action — that we didn’t see with Hurricane Katrina — might be the key to saving many lives.

Our government has a tendency to sluggishly address important issues, especially those pertaining to the environment. But because we have seen this scenario play out in the past, California government officials need to make sure the state doesn’t suffer the same fate as New Orleans. Now there are certainly some extenuating circumstances that make Hurricane Katrina something of an anomaly — including shoddy levees and the inherent risks of costal cities — but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from the experience.

According to the report issued by the USGS, the storm currently predicated is a scenario “of catastrophic proportions for which existing national and state disaster policies are ill-suited.” Because of the magnitude of this storm and the potential flooding of California’s entire Central Valley region — a 300 by 20 mile area — there is simply not a plan to safeguard citizens from this storm. If we thought that we were unprepared for the breaking of a few levees in one city, I shudder to think of how ill-equipped we are for the potential flooding and evacuation of 22 California cities.

The bottom line is that without proper planning and forethought many lives could be lost. The writing is on the walls — or perhaps locked in layers of sediment — and we know that there is a good chance that a superstorm could devastate the state of California. I think the federal government should do its best to not get caught with its pants down this time.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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