Are Californians prepared for "The Other Big One"? - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Are Californians prepared for "The Other Big One"?

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Los Angeles, CA (AP/News 8) - Scientists dub it California's "other Big One," a series of storms capable of costing three times as much as a severe Southern California earthquake.

"These are plausible," Dale Cox, project manager of the study, told News 8 in a phone interview Thursday. "These could happen at any time during the storm season in California."

The storms have happened before, lasting 45 days in the winter of 1861-62. They left nearly a third of taxable land under water and caused the state to go bankrupt.

If a similar scenario played out today, flooding in the Central Valley could stretch 300 miles long and more than 20 miles wide, a report released Thursday by the U.S. Geological Survey found. The storms also could cause hundreds of landslides and serious damage in the state's major population centers.

"Storm are less sudden, less dramatic, and thus loom smaller than earthquakes do in the imagination of risk," the report said. "But the evidence shows these storms do pose a real risk for California, in some ways far greater than that of earthquakes."

"There are projections the storms are going to get more ferocious and more frequent in the future," Cox added.

A team of 117 scientists, engineers and public policy and insurance experts worked for two years to create the hypothetical scenario. They met in Sacramento on Thursday to discuss the report.

The report raises questions about authorities' ability to handle such a disaster and aims to be used for preparedness.

Researchers named the weather event "ARkStorm," after the atmospheric rivers that draw warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean and turn that moisture into rain and snow when it reaches the West Coast.

Scientists believe a series of atmospheric rivers were behind the storms of 1861-62, the largest and longest storms in California's recorded history. Geologic evidence of past floods indicate even bigger storms struck the state long before European settlers arrived.

But with infrastructure development and a population that has grown to 37 million, many of whom live on floodplains and hillsides, a big storm could cause massive destruction to the state.

"The ARkStorm is inevitable in our future," Cox told News 8. "We might not live to see it, but I am betting that we might."

"There's just more of us living in more precarious locations, and the risk is just higher," said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was not involved in the USGS project.

He noted that population and infrastructure density as well as "riskier land use" exacerbated the deadly flooding and mudslides happening in Australia and Brazil.

According to the scenario, heavy rain could cause flooding in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and 50 levees could be breached. Some 1.5 million residents in inland and delta regions would be forced to evacuate.

The report details the extent of potential devastation to crops and livestock in the state's farmlands and estimates the cost to replace them. It also considers high surf damage and erosion to the sensitive coastline, as well as the perils of debris flow and flooding to California's roads, bridges, dams and wastewater treatment facilities.

In all, researchers estimated the losses and damages by a catastrophic storm could cost on the order of $725 billion, nearly three times the cost of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hitting Southern California.

"You start adding up landslide property damage, agricultural damage, the direct damage of flood waters," said local geologist Dr. Pat Abbott, "and they come up with this staggering figure. It could be as much as $725 billion: a mind-boggling large number."

In May 2008, the USGS released a report playing out such a temblor. It became the basis for an earthquake drill billed as the largest in U.S. history, aimed at testing the preparedness of governments, emergency responders and residents.

The report highlights the importance of being prepared.

"Getting people thinking about another big one will go a long way to help people be prepared," Cox told News 8.

Patzert pointed out that an unusually wet December dumped 10 inches of rain in Los Angeles - the same amount that flooded the city in 1938 and led to the paving of the Los Angeles River. He said putting in flood control helped the city to withstand the recent storm.

"You learn lessons and you prepare for the next one," Patzert said. "What could have been the great flood of 2010 turned out to be nothing more than a great photo op."

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