OPINION: LA County must prepare for natural disasters

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Last week, Hurricane Harvey unleashed devastation unseen for a decade on the Houston area. This week, Hurricane Irma began closing in on Florida, causing communities throughout southern Florida to evacuate. With dozens dead and untold property damage, the full costs of Hurricane Harvey and now, Irma, will not be known for years to come. Recent projections paint a bleak picture.

According to The New York Times, most disaster and risk management experts predict the full economic cost of Hurricane Harvey to be between $70 to $108 billion — putting it on track to be either the first or second most expensive weather catastrophe on record in the United States. Other experts are even less optimistic. Joel Myers of weather forecasting service Accuweather, for example, projects that the hurricane may cost the American economy upwards of $190 billion.

Living in California, it is easy to sympathize with the situation in Houston, while largely ignoring it. But this is a grave mistake: Hurricane Harvey illustrates the terrifying future of extreme weather patterns that the Los Angeles area will face in the coming years.  

Southern California, particularly Orange and Los Angeles counties, is a largely coastal region prone to flooding. Though not threatened by hurricanes, California’s southern coast nonetheless faces seasonal storms and flash floods. As climate change disrupts weather patterns and causes more severe events, the area remains vulnerable.

Research Professor Alan Rose, who works at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, told the Daily Breeze that “the number of high-level rain events are likely to increase from climate change.” And with this greater volume of rain, comes a greater possibility of disastrous flooding.

Rose’s research found that the consequences of flooding caused by a catastrophic storm or tsunami hitting Southern California would be immense. In fact, Rose said, “The loss estimates for a severe atmospheric river storm are larger than our estimates for catastrophic earthquake.” The effects of such a disaster would be felt across the entire state and even the nation.

For those skeptical of the possibility of a devastating storm hitting California, look no further than the so-called Great Flood of 1961 through 1962. As Salon reports, the flooding was so severe that the Central Valley was reduced to a lake — with the Los Angeles Basin and much of Orange County completely immersed in water.

This occurred before the region was heavily populated or climate change was creating more severe weather patterns. If a flood of similar magnitude occurred now, it would be much more costly. Rose’s research indicates that the damage to infrastructure would cost upwards of $100 billion to repair.

The effects on Los Angeles alone would be devastating. In a recent study, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated a large-scale storm would uproot 50,000 people and inflict $13 billion in property damage. Situated on a series of low-lying estuaries, Orange County would be hit even harder — sustaining around three times more destruction than Los Angeles County.

With such high stakes, local policymakers must step up to the plate. Climate change is not going away, despite the claims of so-called skeptics. While cutting emissions is integral to reversing global warming, localities should take other practical steps to endure such cataclysmic weather events.

At the moment, a patchwork of local governments are in charge of maintaining California’s emergency flood control infrastructure. The disorganization and lack of real funding spent on the issue is striking. As a result, California’s coast is vastly unprepared for increased flooding or a climate disaster.   

To prevent a crisis, the state government must be bold. The legislature should include comprehensive coastal infrastructure modernization in the transportation updates funded by the recently passed gas tax. Coastal infrastructure is inherently tied up in trade, so ensuring areas like the Port of Los Angeles remain operational even during severe flooding is well within the gas tax’s mandate. New seawalls, sustainable buildings and flood control systems for residential areas would bring these communities up to date with their surroundings.  

If Southern California policymakers do not heed the warnings of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, we as a region will be vulnerable. One day soon, extreme weather patterns will come to Los Angeles. When they do, we must be ready.