In modern, urban life, it can be easy to forget we have built many of our neighborhoods on top of waterways. Especially in California’s long dry seasons – coupled with a years-long drought – creeks and rivers can come to resemble ditches.
But they are always there, a landscape of rivers and creeks, waiting to gush with water when water is there. That humans have constructed bridges, roads and homes is irrelevant to powerful, surging water. And when years go by without a major winter storm, people can forget how fast and fierce moving water is, hence the relentless drumbeat of advisories from public officials in the past two weeks: Be ready, and heed evacuation warnings.
Indeed, human life is on the line. As of this writing, news reports attribute 17 deaths in California to the storms. County officials report 97 people are lodged in temporary emergency shelters at local libraries and fairgrounds on higher ground. While it’s too soon to know the scale of the damage – and floodwaters are still rising in some places – people at homes and businesses and agricultural fields in diverse neighborhoods across Monterey County will be assessing the destruction in the coming weeks.
Whether they can get insurance to help cover the damage will be another question entirely, and most homeowners policies do not offer flood insurance. Instead, the Federal Emergency Management Agency manages the National Flood Insurance Program, a pool of more than 50 insurance companies, meant to minimize the cost to customers and in FEMA’s words, “help reduce the socio-economic impact of floods.”
The socio-economic spread is broad. The locations of homeless encampments along the Pajaro and Salinas rivers just a few days ago are now under water. Developing in high-flood risk areas – on often flat, riverside land – is often a cheaper alternative for lower-cost housing. But there are also more well-off neighborhoods with river-front homes and access to nature. Most of the time, it’s an asset, not a burden.
While FEMA emphasizes that every building is at risk of flooding, that risk level widely varies. “Floods can happen anywhere – just one inch of floodwater can cause up to $25,000 in damage,” the agency reports. At the peak of evacuation orders on Tuesday, Jan. 10, county officials determined more than 18,000 Monterey County residents were impacted.
It is at once a significant number of people, and yet it’s less than 5 percent of the county’s total population. For the majority of county residents who live in more urban settings, the storm might feel like just regular rainy days. (Of course there are other related impacts that affect all of us, including fallen trees, leading to road closures and downed power lines.)
This series of storms is leading to immense disruptions to regular life and safety risk and financial loss for many people. But we have chosen to build communities in some of the most highly impacted places. I remember interviewing former county supervisor Lou Calcagno upon his retirement and asking if there was anything he regretted in his 16 years on the board. “We approved the houses at Mission Fields at the mouth of the Carmel River. Those houses should’ve never been built there,” he said.
There are ways to minimize flood risk to buildings, which are largely by restoring the natural shape of floodplains along waterways. Big Sur Land Trust is currently undertaking two such projects – one at Carr Lake in Salinas (one of those forgotten waterways that no longer looks like a lake, but residents around it are reminded of its history during a week like this). Another is near the Carmel River mouth with Carmel River FREE, to which FEMA is considering granting $25 million in funding, depending on its findings on how effectively the project mitigates flood risk.
Of course, we have already built communities in these high-risk areas and we are unlikely to move 18,000 people. What we can do instead is take steps to prepare and accept that there is some amount of unavoidable risk. Whether you live in an area of serious flood risk or not, stay vigilant and stay safe out there. And I hope that even in the midst of the destructive power of the storm, you are able to join me in taking a moment to marvel at the power and drama of nature.