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How a Sandy-Type Storm Could Short-Circuit Silicon Valley

| November 6, 2012
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First the good news: The Bay Area has plans in place for a storm as big and bad as Sandy.

Could this image from Atlantic City, New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012 show the Bay Area's future? (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Now the bad news: Planning is about as far as it goes. We haven’t built new levees or seawalls, moved electrical equipment higher up, or relocated much of anything out of the flood plain.

So if you’d like to know how a storm like Sandy would affect the Bay Area, just look at New York, New Jersey and the other mid-Atlantic states that may be struggling to rebuild for years to come.

Not only could tens of thousands lose their homes, businesses could close, said Jeffrey Mount, a geology professor and founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, speaking on KQED’s Forum Wednesday. “Think Oracle, Cisco, Intuit, Lockheed Martin, Google, Facebook – suddenly they find themselves out of business.”

What made Sandy so awful was the combination of a tropical storm with heavy rain, high tides and surging waves. Rain pouring into creeks and rivers met ocean water flooding in the opposite direction to put miles of coast under water.

The same thing could happen here, Mount warned. For example an El Nino year of heavy rain could coincide with a Pineapple Express storm in the winter when tides are at their highest, said Mount.

“The business community does not register this well because they keep thinking we’re talking in the abstract, that we’re talking about climate change, and somewhere out in the future this is going to be a problem. We’ll deal with it later. No it’s here now. That risk is here today.”

Could the folks who wired the world really have their heads in the sand? We called Cisco and Google right away to see what they would say, and will update this post as soon as we hear back.

(Update on Nov. 7, 2012: Cisco responded with an email saying the company has “Incident Management Teams made up of a practiced group of cross-functional representatives that coordinate Cisco’s internal and external response to an incident – in place to respond to issues such as flooding or other natural disasters.” We asked for more specifics about such preparations as moving electrical equipment to the second floor. We have not heard from Google and are reaching out to more of the firms Mount mentioned.)

On the Forum show, Joe LaClair, chief planner with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, said these companies are not completely ignoring the problem.

They have “engaged with us” in regional planning meetings, he said.

But I think it’s important to note that business leaders operate on a fairly short strategic time horizon. Many focus on the quarter, the year, maybe five years out. So it’s hard to get their attention when you talk about sea level rises that may cause problems in 40 or 50 years. But I think these near-term storm threats are real, they’re hear now, and they fit better into those strategic planning time frames that most businesses deal with.

The San Francisco Bay itself is somewhat sheltered, he added. “In the bay, there can be high storm winds, but they don’t generate the wave height and storm surges of the same height that we just saw in New York.”

Potentially worse for the Bay Area are rising tides, Mount said. “What is going to happen to us is not so much these big storms, but increasing intensity and duration of tides. The tides will progressively get higher and higher and higher with time. What we would think of a king tide, which are a really biggest tides, is actually going to be a very common tide within a few decades.”

That’s because water levels are rising as the oceans warm and the ice caps melt.

A caller to the show asked how high above current sea level the tides might get.

“Our coastal defenses in the Bay are not as high as they need to be,” Mount said. “Storm surge with wind-driven waves could go as high as the 15 to 16-foot contour here in the Bay Area.”

To visualize how much of the Bay Area would go under water as the sea rises to various levels, Mount recommended the Sea Level Rise Viewer created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Even one foot of sea level rise could put Oakland International Airport underwater, according to this viewer. And BCDC website warns that “the California Climate Action Team’s sea level rise projections, ranging from 10-17 inches at mid-century and 31-69 inches at the end of the century, currently provide the best available sea level rise projections for the West Coast.”

Another caller asked if upgrading building codes would help.

“Building codes get you one building at a time,” LaClair responded. “But because we can’t be sure properties are going to experience a renovation during the time the threat occurs, then we also need to think of our entire shoreline as a system and provide defenses that way.”

Another caller reminded listeners to take responsibility for their own safety by keeping food supplies on hand and fuel tanks as full as possible. The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services offers tips on the website 72hours.org.

As an indication of how slowly public and private organizations are moving, Mount pointed to past experience. “We had a big flood back in 1997 in the Central Valley. It’s been 15 years since that, and we haven’t done anything about it except get a plan together. So, these things take decades to respond to; unless there’s a sense of urgency, things don’t get going.”

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