Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 21, 2011

ARkStorm: Moving toward evidence-based whole-of-community engagement

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on January 21, 2011

Late last week the US Geological Survey and others reported out a study of a historically documented pattern of super-flooding along the West Coast. Even in California the report has not gotten the attention I expected.

Moreover, much of the limited attention has signaled world-weary fatalism or knee-jerk skepticism.  The effort deserves more balanced and simply more attention.

Following is a related news story from the Sacramento Bee with some online links — click on any blue text below — and interlinear comments by yours truly.


McClatchy Newspapers
Published: Friday, Jan. 14, 2011 – 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jan. 14, 2011 – 11:35 am

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California has more risk of catastrophic storms than any other region in the country – even the Southern hurricane states, according to a new study released Thursday.

(A 183 page overview of the study is available from USGS)

The two-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey is the most thorough effort yet to assess the potential effects of a “worst-case” storm in California.

It builds on a new understanding of so-called atmospheric rivers, a focusing of high-powered winds that drag a fire hose of tropical moisture across the Pacific Ocean, pointed directly at California for days on end. The state got a relatively tame taste of the phenomenon in December.

(Is an Atmospheric River the cause of the epic flooding in Queensland?   See: Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

The team of experts that developed the scenario can’t say when it will happen. But they do say it has happened in the past and is virtually certain to strike again.

(We can seldom predict catastrophe, all the more reason to anticipate it.)

“This storm, with essentially the same probability as a major earthquake, is potentially four to five times more damaging,” said Lucy Jones, USGS chief scientist on the study. “That’s not something that is in the public consciousness.”

(It is a low frequency — but periodically recurring — event with very high consequences.)

The study aims to fix that.

A conference on the subject, ending Friday at California State University, Sacramento, brings together hundreds of emergency planners to discuss the worst-case storm and how to prepare for it.

(I wonder if there are specific plans to extend the conversation beyond emergency planners? Hope so.)

The USGS is assessing a variety of natural hazards across the country. California was chosen for the latest project, called ArkStorm, because the state “has the potential for the biggest rainfall events in the country,” Jones said.

(You can scan USGS work on a range of natural hazards at their website.)

In December, an atmospheric river threw a series of wet storms at the state, breaking rainfall records in many areas across California. One part of Los Angeles County got 17 inches of rain in three days. Disasters were declared in 11 counties.

(I understand this is the same weather pattern behind the Queensland flooding.)

In the study, researchers used computer models and a composite of three historical storms to estimate a worst-case event: a torrent of tropical rain for nine straight days.

It amounts to a 500-year storm. In the lingo of disaster managers, that does not mean it happens only once every 500 years, but that it has two-tenths percent chance of occurring in any given year.

The Central Valley and the Sacramento region are likely to suffer the worst effects because they lie within a funnel for the state’s biggest rivers.

Such storms have happened. The primary example in the study occurred over December and January, 1861-62. Rain fell on and off for 45 days. Sacramento was inundated, and Gov.-elect Leland Stanford famously took a rowboat to his inauguration.

The researchers used soil samples to estimate that similar megastorms hit the state on at least six other occasions in the past 2 millenia, at 200- to 400-year intervals.

(In my thinking, the geologic and historical record differentiates this study from other modeling or projections.)

Of course, a lot has changed since 1861 – for better and for worse. Central Valley levees are generally stronger and more comprehensive now. On the other hand, millions more people and more economic activity depend on those levees.

The report acknowledges that some experts disagree with the severity of the scenario, especially in Sacramento and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Joe Countryman, president of MBK Engineers in Sacramento, who has decades of flood-control experience in the region and saw a draft of the study several months ago, said it lacked detailed analysis of reservoir operations and river flow capacity.

“As an exercise to test emergency procedures, OK. I’m not against it,” he said. “It seems to me much bigger than anything could actually be.”

(Given the geologic record — or just what we are seeing in Queensland — what is the source of skepticism?)

But the researchers also note that none of the levees is built for a 500-year storm. The best – such as those in Yuba County’s Plumas Basin and parts of Sacramento – are built for a 200-year storm.

Potential consequences include:

-$1 trillion in damages statewide – five times worse than a massive earthquake, which likely would affect only one region.

-1.5 million people displaced, about the same number affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

-Potentially hundreds of people killed, based on the inability of some vulnerable groups to evacuate, or for help to reach them.

-Pollution from flooded wastewater treatment plants, refineries and dairies. Some sewer plants might not return to operation for months.

“For a lot of people in California, we don’t think of ourselves as being this flood-prone,” said Laurie Johnson, an urban planning and disaster recovery expert, and co-author of the report. “It’s just too difficult to comprehend.”

What should people do?

Anyone living behind levees should buy flood insurance, Jones said. Only 12 percent do currently.

Citizens can also support urban planning efforts to steer development away from flood-prone areas, and support continued levee improvements.

The study estimates that upgrading urban levees to withstand the worst-case storm might cost $25 billion – a sum that pales next to the potential for hundreds of billions in storm damages.

Officials hope emergency planners use the ArkStorm report to prepare for the worst.

The next step is to develop a storm-rating scale similar to that used for hurricanes. It would assign a number to a storm based on predicted severity.



Much more is available regarding ARkStorm (Atmospheric River plus k Storm, get it?) and other high consequence hazards from USGS and CalTech at the Multi Hazards Demonstration Project website.

From a USGS news release:

According to FEMA Region IX Director, Nancy Ward, “The ARkStorm report will prove to be another invaluable tool in engaging the whole of our community in addressing flood emergencies in California. It is entirely possible that flood control infrastructure and mitigation efforts could be overwhelmed by the USGS ARkStorm scenario, and the report suggests ways forward to limit the damage that is sure to result.”

I hope so.  This is the kind of information that needs to be packaged and pushed out to the public for broad consideration.  We  should not wait to develop official answers and assurances before engaging the public.  In dealing with potential catastrophe, such answers do not exist.  But in my experience when clear historical precedence is presented with credible empirical analysis it can capture public attention and spur the creativity of communities.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 21, 2011 @ 1:14 am

Well since 1950 California has been the leading recipient of federal disaster outlays so looking like a good bet to continue. Or of course the big one may move the Coast Line back a ways. You know the joke–Howard Hughes when settling in Las Vegas was really buy ocean front property!

Hey and then there are always simultaneous concurrent events. All those big cracks in the earth to absorb all that water making even bigger cracks? Thinking the unthinkable is good sometimes.

Comment by John G. Comiskey

January 21, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

Another perfect storm that offers opportunity too –a whole of government engagement strategy. Assuming (presuming?) Arkstorm to be a midterm reality, wouldn’t a mass public works project accomplish three things in the near-term, midterm, and long-term:

1. Promote civic responsibility: action binds anxiety and might develop a sense of self reliance.
2. Foster a new New Deal with the commensurate three Rs, relief, recovery, and reform. Our nations Critical Infrastructure is woefully inadequate to maintain (regain?) our Nation’s competitive edge in the global economy.
3. Economic stimulus might snowball. Subject to criticism (we’re broke). Still better then bailing out private enterprise.


Post mortem report/commission (What might have been)
that details how we might have avoided disaster.

Pingback by Tweets that mention Homeland Security Watch » ARkStorm: Moving toward evidence-based whole-of-community engagement -- Topsy.com

January 21, 2011 @ 8:30 pm

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Comment by We Must Address Our Infrastructure!

January 22, 2011 @ 10:43 am

I wholeheartily concur that the community and its receptiveness to “credible empirical analysis” is what we seek, not the inherent politics that seems to always dilute the message whether from town hall, city hall or from the WH and Congressional floor.

Our mistrust of government, do you blame us here on Main Street USA? We continue to simply ask for…oh yes, transparency and clarity, accountability. We see little of such and it is refreshing to see

So often politics and ego with self agenda versus pledge and at to serve constituency send a differing message than what it really is that we need to rll our sleeves up and act on…

Public Works projects addressing our erding infrastucture…obviously government cares little, however We care and far too much time has already passed along with spiralling costs where substantial and – necessary – projects could employ the growing number of unemployed promised as we move forward. $2trillion in spiralling budget deficit this year alone and you truly believe that no matter party designation unless unenrolled (independent) will ever address the misspending, the ineptness of the same folks who put us into this mess finding a way to dig us out of $14trillion+ — $14trillion in bankrupt and incapable legislators frm those who sit amng the (Taxa)Massachusetts State Legislators to Congress. Most of them are attorneys at best, having very little knowledge as to economics or even able to balance their own checkbooks and live within their means –

This government riddled with so much corruption, so much disregard for those of us on Main Street USA, such arrogance reminds me of the competition between Montgomery and Patton as they bth raced to see who would be first to march with their respective trops into a designated little town in Sicily back in August ’43, not even seventy years ago and representing the dysfunction, the weakness of even distinguished gentleman who proved their wrth far more than many today…

When the Americans landed in Sicily, the Germans knew they might have to retreat to the mainland and immediately drew up contingent plans to retreat.

When the decision was made, as the retreat was in progress, they would pile up their dead soldiers along the road because they knew the Americans and their tanks would not drive over dead bodies and this gave the retreating 100,000 troops time to get to port, board vessel and off to the mainland to fight another day while Montegomery and Patton, distracted by their “blindness in ego” as I refer to it, stood by 52 miles away watching the last of German and Italian troops depart only to retain capability to harm us again on another battlefield.

I see our distractions as many. We have lost focus and the patriotism we need to proudly and steadfastly address whether this news and concern in California and another wake up call to amass the growing number of unemployed and older workers yet to retire and derive productivity, pride, encourage the development of programs to address infrastucture and to make America, our beloved Republic, strong, portraying an Amwerica which proudly places hand over heart in pledge to flag and country, where executive leadership, unlike this WH and Barry and his “Goldman Sachs” administration and banker mentality, are proud to shout out the verse of the National Anthem!

I did my graduate work in Urban Affairs and City Planning and as one willing to unselfishly give of myself to community, I know the “politics” and like most of us, We here on Main Street USA see the bridges and other structures, roadways and other that need our immediate attention, but like Montgomery and Patton, We have been distracted…very distracted and We gentlemen and ladies are in much peril…Yes, maybe from floods and other, but more importantly, led away from our ideals and the America We know and expect to thrive into succeeding generations, not bankrupted by such insolence of thoose entrusted by our precious vote!

We are worried about earthquake, not only in California, but in our heartland and even here in the northeast where we today are looking over the latest computer runs and see a fetch of moisture about to be drawn up the eastern seaboard by a deepening low pressure which may again drop another swath of 18″++ of snow in some locations where even the hearty New Englander is becoming weary of heavy snows and subfreezing tempratures w/cold arctic air to follow, of course to the delight of snowbarder, skier and ski area operators!

Surely We are worried about a promised record number of tornados, a hot summer especially for two-thirds of the nation and all the woes which seem to be stressing mankind globally, but as one involved in Haiti, in Rwanda, in Ghana in international “humanitarian” project development, no matter what Mother Nature’s wrath, She cannot do anything to us more than we can do to one another as partisan Congressional gridlock and arrogant ego much like Montgomery and Patton, self agenda distracting us from that which will sustain us, to nourish us….

“To look up in the sky and see the kite fly high” and if I may change Caiden Dunham’s verse, for us to once again as a nation, the most innovative and most charitable people “To look up in the sky and see our American Flag so high” with ambition, steadfast fortitude to send a message to the “Brutes of Tehran” and say, no to your continued intent to bloody your hands of our youth in uniform and and even direct the cold blooded killing and allowing rich Persian blood to spill onto the streets of Tehran…

Let us engage ourselves, our needs and the infrastructure we desperately must address!

Christopher Tingus
PO Box 1612
Harwich, MA USA

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