USGS Report Predicts Effects of a Major Storm

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Six years before UC Berkeley was founded, California saw one of the worst storms in its history. To prepare for another, scientists have predicted the effects should a major storm hit the state.

The U.S. Geological Survey's Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project released a report in January outlining the effects of a hypothetical storm on California. The ARkStorm, which is modeled after a large storm in the mid-1800s, could cause substantial flooding and landslide damage to the Berkeley area. The project is intended to help the state prepare for large-scale natural disasters.

According to the report, the ARkStorm could cost $725 billion statewide, including property and agricultural losses as well as lost business. Scientists emphasize, however, that this storm is a hypothetical model, not a prediction.

"The ARkStorm is an emergency-planning scenario," said Keith Porter, an associate research professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It is one possible outcome of a severe winter storm in California ... By planning for this storm, one can be prepared for other storms."

Porter said ARkStorm economic loss estimates are based on national hazard loss estimates and potential flooding, and the losses "in a different storm could be higher or lower." He added that estimates become less reliable at the local level.

"(For the city of Berkeley), the flood-related building repair cost modeled in ARkStorm is approximately $150 million, or just over 1 percent of the building replacement cost," said Porter, who coordinated physical impact assessments for ARkStorm, in an e-mail.

ARkStorm is modeled after a storm that hit California in the winter of 1861 and 1862. That January, flooding in Sacramento forced the state Legislature to temporarily move to San Francisco.

The Evening Bulletin, a San Francisco-based newspaper, reported on Jan. 24, 1862 that San Francisco had seen 36.67 inches of rain that season - almost twice that of the previous winter. Sacramento-based newspaper The Daily Bee reported a day earlier that 46 people had died due to the flood up to that point and "every bridge between Santa Clara and Pescadero has been swept away."

According to data maps released by the USGS, the ARkStorm flooding in Berkeley would mainly occur west of Interstate 80 and could reach levels from 3 to 10 feet for up to 12 hours. The data maps show larger impacts for the rest of the Bay Area. The runways at San Francisco International Airport as well as the Google campus in Mountain View and much of Silicon Valley could be flooded by 3 to 10 feet of water.

Jonathan Stock, a research geologist with the USGS and ARkStorm, said the main concern for Berkeley is landslides, particularly shallow landslides caused by intense rainfall. Deep-seated landslides require "not a single storm but a series of storms" and happen days or weeks after the storm.

"I do not think we are effectively prepared for a storm like this," he said.

Chris Wills, a California geologist who worked on landslides in ARkStorm, said "large areas" of the Berkeley Hills have deep-seated landslides, but the ARkStorm scenario would probably only affect "dozens of houses in the Berkeley (and) Oakland Hills."

In the 1968-69 rainy season, Alameda County had 13 landslides totaling $5.4 million in damages, according to Stock. In the 1972 to 1973 season, damages totaled $400,000.

According to Wills, many of the homes in the Berkeley Hills were built prior to modern ordinances requiring new construction to be assessed for potential landslide damage. Nonetheless, he said most deep-seated landslides move slowly and thus cause damage slowly.

UC Berkeley's Office of Emergency Preparedness compared the ARkStorm report to the campus's multi-hazard mitigation plan in January. Director Stephen Stoll said that after looking at the report, "We feel that our plans are adequate."

Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, city of Berkeley spokesperson, said the city does a lot of emergency preparedness, but that it is "not doing anything with (ARkStorm) at this time."


Sara Johnson covers the environment. Contact her at [email protected]

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