Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

A pause in the disaster

1 March 2021

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, it occurred to me that the nationwide disease outbreak was exactly like what most of us call “natural disasters” — floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, landslides, earthquakes of course, and the like. And in the literature, and on Twitter, I started to pay more attention to the specialists. Not so much the specialists in the phenomena, although those are crucial people, but the specialists who call themselves part of the disaster community: social scientists rather than natural scientists.

Those are the people who hate the term “natural disaster.” They’ll tell you “there are no natural disasters.” By that they mean an insight that galvanized me when I first read it a generation ago: “Human beings, not nature, are the cause of disaster losses. The choices that are made about where and how human development will proceed actually determine the losses that will be suffered in future disasters.”

It underlies what I do in this blog. It was in this book.

Disasters by Design came out in 1999, the outcome of a conference of disaster-related specialists sponsored by the National Science Foundation and several federal agencies. It laid out an ambitious vision of how society can deal with the disasters that happen when we get in nature’s way.

First, it pointed out that our current practices of mitigation aren’t enough. Our warning systems, building codes, and other measures succeed only in saving lives. Consider the case of hurricanes: they no longer kill many people, but they still cause record-breaking economic losses every year. Even the small ones cost more these days. Hurricanes haven’t changed much at all, but we have. The Northridge earthquake of January 1994, not such a big one, killed only a few dozen people, yet it caused more than $20 billion in insured damages alone.

And our mitigation measures have bad side effects. For example, the hurricane warning system makes people feel safer, but now it’s harder to keep them from building on the beach, from paving the dunes, from moving sand from one coast to another for short-lived patches on degrading shorelines. And in earthquake country, new structures preserve people’s lives, but the growing population is still vulnerable, living too far from jobs and served by elaborate electrical and water systems. People die less and less, but they keep paying more and more. Surely we can do better.

Disasters by Design explores how to go beyond mitigation toward a more resilient way of life, one that rolls with nature’s punches and returns to normalcy quickly. This desirable goal, “sustainable hazard mitigation,” means living politically the way we live personally, in ways our descendants won’t end up paying for. And if it’s done right, the community gains benefits beyond the insurance that the new policies provide — the people and their institutions are stronger, and wealthier too. That great work needs the help of social scientists, whose research on the people side complements the expertise on the engineering and prediction side.

The reason this book was a best-seller for its publisher, used as a textbook for a generation of practitioners and launching a movement in and beyond the disaster community, was its author. Social scientist Dennis Mileti was a gifted communicator who could hold an audience without a PowerPoint deck, a teacher who always had time for a student, and a leader who knew how to energize and drive diverse committees and teams. He went to the same conferences I do, and I sought out his talks.

Mileti died of Covid-19 on 30 January, two days before he was scheduled to get the vaccine. Last year he told a writer for the Washington Post that America’s approach to the pandemic scared him: “We have people saying, ‘It will be over soon!’ and other people saying, ‘It could be months.’ That gives the public the ability to pick the answer they like, which is the No. 1 no-no in public messaging.”

I opened my copy of his book last week — and it’s his despite having dozens of contributors — and it does not read like it’s 21 years old. The vision is still strong and the insights are still valid. You might say that means we haven’t achieved sustainable hazard mitigation, and in truth that’s a very difficult project. It takes everyone’s involvement, under skilled and patient guidance, to change a community.

But for some reason being reminded of the vision is still inspiring. And over the years I’ve seen the vision infiltrating my own piece of the disaster community, the Earth hazards sector. Tsunami specialist Lori Dengler wrote an appreciation of Mileti just last fall, which reminded me that he was involved with the ShakeOut earthquake-drill program, and before that was an advisor for this pamphlet many of you may remember from after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Dennis Mileti worked here too, for us.

And that’s just the earthquake crowd. He was involved with the full range of disasters, bringing insight into how to communicate alarms and alerts, what motivates genuine change, what steps to take beyond reciting facts at people. And yet it was a funny thing: while Mileti died of Covid-19, Disasters by Design doesn’t address disease epidemics. But over the last year I’ve read a lot of pandemic coverage, and awareness is seeping in that disease outbreaks are just part of this planet, and that if we are creating situations where animal viruses can leap to our species — imperiling ourselves by getting in nature’s way — then Covid-19 is just as much a “natural disaster” as a levee break during a flood.

It may be time for a new book that adds pandemics to the rogues gallery of disasters. It would be fitting if we could tie together the lessons learned from the pandemic and the quest to bring about sustainable hazard mitigation. Sustainability is about not just growing wisdom, but also passing wisdom forward, and Dennis Mileti did both. Let us not forget his name.

GHADs—peculiar agencies that safeguard the land

12 November 2018

It’s been a couple years since I’ve visited and written about the Leona Quarry site. It continues to fill with houses. The plantings of local plant species are doing OK, though they’d be happier without the drought. Here’s an updated view from Burckhalter Park, which I’ve visited occasionally since 2003 just for this purpose. (The trees keep getting taller.)

The highest and final residential level, Skyview Drive, is being populated now. The rest of the land will always be open space.

However, the land won’t be exactly natural. It will be intensively maintained. That sturdy concrete flume in the foreground, for example, is there so rainwater runoff from the slopes won’t start digging gullies. The runoff goes to a collection basin at the bottom of the slope that keeps all the muddy sediment and sends the water on into Chimes Creek.

Here’s more of that impressive drainage system, on a lower slope.

What about that high rock face standing in the back? Even from this distance, it looks a little ragged, a little menacing. During my last visit, in January 2016, I was up there and it looked like this.

That crumbling rock was pouring past this temporary barrier and overfilling one of those handsome concrete troughs.

It’s a big and constant job to maintain this infrastructure. There’s always something to do. Who does it, and what happens when something major happens, like a landslide?

In developments like these, a homeowners association typically handles repairs and upkeep for community amenities like paving, play equipment and landscaping. Those aren’t demanding tasks. But what do most homeowners know about geology? For the special hazards posed by geological forces, like erosion and landslides, there’s something better: a Geologic Hazard Abatement District or GHAD.

GHADs (pronounced like “gadzooks” without the zook) are peculiar entities, created under the Beverly Act of 1979, that are set up to handle the specialized job of dealing with geologic hazards for a specific set of landowners. Formally political divisions of the state independent of cities and counties, they’re exempt from bureaucratic headaches like reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or hassles with the county’s LAFCO agency (and its wretched website). They have elected Boards of Directors and can own land, impose taxes, issue bonds, exercise eminent domain and possess other superpowers. There are dozens of GHADs now, and Alameda and Contra Costa Counties are their epicenter.

What keeps GHADs from running amuck or shirking their job is their “constitution,” a detailed Plan of Control drawn up by a licensed engineering geologist that ensures the Board will act with a prudent level of care. The program of regular monitoring and maintenance is spelled out in an Engineer’s Report, prepared by a licensed geotechnical engineer. It’s a simple but powerful program that spares taxpayers the geological risk inherent in developing sites like Leona Quarry. Learn more from the California Association of GHADs.

The Leona Quarry GHAD was formed in 2005, and by now it has saved up several million dollars of landowners’ assessments for maintaining the defenses — the retaining walls, drainage facilities, native plants and so on — and for major incidents like slides, wildfires and washouts. In emergencies, the GHAD can act with funding in place, trusted experts (from ENGEO) in charge and minimal red tape.

As spelled out in the Engineer’s Report, the concrete drains are cleaned and inspected four times a year, and checked whenever rainfall exceeds an inch in 12 hours. The collection basin is mucked out whenever it fills to a certain level, and the vegetation inside is cut low whenever it grows above 5 feet high. When a wildfire swept over the north end of the upper slope last year, the GHAD sent its plant specialist out afterward to keep the native habitat in good shape, which in turn helps stabilize the slope.

A second GHAD, the Oakland Area GHAD, was established in 2006 for the small Siena Hill development off Keller Avenue. You’ve seen its rugged retaining walls with the fake-stone finish looming as you head east up Keller from Mountain Boulevard toward Sequoyah Community Church.

The builders and the city probably wouldn’t have developed this daunting location without a GHAD that enabled the homeowners to cover their own risk. And now the residents pay their annual fee of about $1500 and the City Council, meeting as the GHAD Board of Directors, spends literally three minutes a year passing a budget and keeping its hands clean of liability. Success for the developers is not certain, though, with fewer than half the lots filled after 12 years.

However, neither has failure been declared. What’s there so far looks really nice.

And from my point of view Siena Hill is a success because it exposes the Leona volcanics well, like this pretty boulder at the far end of Siena Drive.

Farther up is a fresh roadcut that displays the chaotic nature of this intriguing geologic unit, which represents a volcanic island arc of Jurassic age.

The whole thing consists of the distinctive greenish celadonite-bearing phase that I’ve found scattered all over the East Oakland hills. This is the first proper outcrop of it I’ve seen. Well worth a visit.

But enough of this stone cheesecake.

The Oakland Area GHAD is more than just a minor political curiosity; it was established with an eye toward folding in other similar developments as they come up. And it will hit the big time as the Oak Knoll development takes place over the next decade, because a whole bunch of land there, including the open space, the oak woodlands and the streambed of Rifle Range Creek, will come under the GHAD’s purview. The City Council may have to take a few more minutes from now on to manage that.

Work at Oak Knoll began in September. I am looking forward to the day when that land opens up to visitors.

A new kind of shoreline

5 March 2018

Rising sea level is a threat to the Bay area. Already, king tides are flooding the levees and seawalls built for the last century’s ocean. I touched upon this topic a few weeks ago with my proposed walk around Lake Merritt in 2100, assuming that the Bay will be a couple meters higher than today.

Yesterday, happenstance allowed me to witness a promising project that has built an experimental coastline modeled after a natural one — specifically, a living water filter meant to sit between the low tidal mudflats and the higher levees holding the Bay back. The Northern California Science Writers Association arranged for a group of members to visit the Horizontal Levee Project, on the grounds of the Oro Loma Sanitary District wastewater treatment plant in San Lorenzo.

Let me sketch the idea behind the project. To begin with, the natural coastal landscape has been totally messed up. It used to be a nice grassland plain, gradually sloping down to a series of wetlands that merged organically into the tidal marsh, mudflats and open Bay waters. Water from the hills percolated gently down the streams and through the ground, nourishing a lovely ecosystem full of species. American settlers cut off the top part of this landscape and covered it with buildings, dammed and diverted the streams, then filled in and walled off the lower part with levees. Today the coastal wetlands are cut off from the water and sediment from the hills, and meanwhile the sea is creeping up and washing them away.

The thinking behind the Horizontal Levee Project is to build a new slope on the uphill side of this truncated coast, then restore the groundwater flow that used to be there using treated wastewater. Even compressed to a fraction of its former width, the resulting slope should be a powerful water-scrubbing engine and a vibrant habitat. (Figure from here.)

The wastewater part is crucial because we have lots of it, we can control its flow, and the new slope — scientifically, an ecotone — cleanses the wastewater of nitrates and other hard-to-remove compounds better than treatments costing 10 times as much. All while feeding a splendid tidal marsh that resists storm waves better than concrete walls!

Our visit took place on a brisk, bright day by the bayshore. The Oro Loma Sanitary District treatment plant is mostly clean, stark and Brobdingnagian.

But the operators found space to put up this pilot project on their own land, where they didn’t need so many permits. They built a gently sloping earthwork, installed pipes at the top and drains at the bottom, then raised a mix of plants from local sources to seed it with, using these planter boxes.

Project staff noted that the alkali bulrush is particularly good at resisting storm waves with its tall, stiff stems.

Seeding and planting happened in the rainy season of 2015-16, so this lush jungle of native marsh plants on the ecotone was just two years old. It’s so dense that invasive weeds, even pampas grass, don’t stand a chance.

And the water coming out at the lower end is really clean. (Even so, the water was pumped out through the white pipes on the left and put back into the treatment stream.) Soil bacteria actually convert the nasty nitrate to nitrogen gas, so it isn’t just trapped in the dirt or building up within the plants.

Water treatment agencies all around the Bay have their eyes on this experiment. It looks like the design will be flexible enough to be adapted for as much as 5000 acres of wetlands, a significant fraction of the coastline that’s particularly vulnerable to sea rise.

Awareness of sea-level rise needs to happen faster than the rising sea itself. The speakers yesterday found that the hardest nut to crack in moving things forward is regulations: interpreting them creatively, coordinating the regulators, combating inertia. To envision, scope, design and plan improvements to the shoreline literally takes decades, meaning that we have to aim for a target in the year our children reach our age.

A walk around Lake Merritt in 2100, after sea-level rise

8 January 2018

Everybody walks around Lake Merritt. I do it all the time. But I got the wacky idea of a walk that circles the lake without “touching” it — sort of a “floor is molten lava” version — and pedestrian paths count. Here’s what that would look like.

That’s a fun walk through some fine neighborhoods, and about 1-1/2 miles longer than sticking to the shore. The only quibble is at Grand and Euclid: you might be safer from the lava if you left Grand a block west, up Bellevue, but you’d miss some rare little streets and a stairway.

Then I thought, What will it be like after a century or so of sea-level rise? How would people get around the swollen lake in 2100? Laying out that walk required more care. The forecasts of future sea levels vary widely — so much depends on Antarctica and human actions — but a summary by NASA puts the worst-case upper limit at 2 meters above today’s elevation by the year 2100.

You could walk all over the lake shore and eyeball 2 meters elevation — and I did do that — but fortunately there’s a better tool available at the Risk Finder site, by Climate Central. That’s where I compiled the map below (1200 x 1000), showing the areas around Lake Merritt that would be inundated by a 2-meter sea-level rise. (You’ll also find a big page of stuff about Oakland.)

The map shows we’d lose nearly all of the shoreline roads. Along the west arm of the lake, most of Lakeside Drive would go under, and the water would reach up Harrison all the way to Whole Foods.

In Lakeside Park, the bandstand and the whole bird sanctuary would be submerged, though the rest of the park is on a Pleistocene marine terrace and would stay dry.

The east end of the lake would really take a hit. Forget the pergola — all of Eastshore Park would turn into tidal wetland, and Splash Pad Park? It’d be just Splash Park.

Grand Avenue as far as Elwood we’d have to rename Grand Canal. All the properties lining Lake Park Avenue would get their feet wet, including the Grand Lake Theatre, and a bunch of shops on Lakeshore.

Down at the boat landing, E. 18th Street would be underwater all the way to Park Boulevard, wiping out the heart of that commercial district.

And the Lake Merritt Amphitheater would mostly go under, though the roadway — Lake Merritt Boulevard — would be fine. So would the pedestrian bridge, for what that’s worth.

The geologic map shows that the new wetlands around the lake would be in areas of artificial fill (af), and because fill isn’t built up any higher than strictly necessary, it’s vulnerable to rising seas. In planning my round-the-lake walk I kept things simple and assumed the roads in these areas will be abandoned (but see more below).

Walking around the lake in 2100, you’d have to give a wide berth to “Thomas L. Berkley Creek” under 20th Street, Glen Echo Creek under Harrison, Pleasant Valley and Trestle Glen Creeks under Grand Lake, and Park Boulevard Creek under E. 18th. These detours will put you up in the hills, because that part of town is either really flat or stairstep steep. On the positive side, that terrain (lobes 3 and 4 of the Fan) is what makes Adams Point, Lakeshore and Cleveland Heights so charming.

Given all that, I came up with this 2100 Walk Around Lake Merritt.

Notice that almost none of it actually “touches” the lake. The shoreline roads will be swamped, along with each of the stream valleys entering the lake. As I field-checked this walk by eyeball, at two places in particular it looked like you’d still need wellies. One spot is Sunset Cove, at the north end of Wayne where it meets Wesley Avenue (at the end of the word “Lakeshore” on the map).

If that’s off limits (and the inundation map says it is) you’d need to climb up Newton instead and come down Stow, which would definitely call for a pizza slice from Leaning Tower (if it’s still there in 2100) to get you over that hump.

The other spot is on Harrison at the Whole Foods. If Bay Place (the continuation of 27th Street) isn’t above water, you’d have to detour up Vernon and traverse the hills of Adams Point on Lee Street to get back down to Grand Avenue. But you might as well stay up high, because the only way across the freeway, short of climbing all the way up to the Chetwood Street overcrossing and back down Santa Clara (about a half-mile detour), is the amazing pedestrian/bike crossing at the end of Van Buren Avenue. Here’s the view from the west end over I-580.

And from the end of the cage section, you can see the east end, where it winds behind the Lakeview School and then over the freeway onramp.

If I ran this city, I’d refurbish this valuable bypass with an arched cage of clean chainlink that allows better views. And while I was at it I’d build another overcrossing on the other side of Grand Lake, connecting the severed parts of Wesley Avenue, because the climb up to MacArthur and down again is oppressive (though picturesque).

And why not? Because in the next hundred years we’ll be doing a lot of building and rebuilding. Taking this walk will force you to picture your great-grandchildren’s landscape in detail. And in my vision, unlike my fever dream, the lakeside streets are too important to abandon to the rising sea. They’ll be built up. We’ll still be able to walk around the lake along the shore, and we won’t have to take the route I mapped out.

However, the buildings along the shore are a different story. Here’s a little-appreciated geological fact: as the sea rises, so will the groundwater in the dry land along the coast. Basements that are a few feet above the water table today will be permanent pools in 2100. Streets laid down on dry ground will find their roadbeds turning mushy, more prone to traffic damage. In that respect, rising sea levels will affect things much farther from shore than the tides reach.

By 2100, today’s lakeside buildings will have gone through two or three more mortgage cycles — plus at least one damaging earthquake — and will be a century older. Given that, I think the apartment buildings on Lakeshore, for instance, will be dismantled by then and their lots condemned. And the road will move onto their old footprints.

The largest and most valuable structures will stay on — the Kaiser Center and its neighbor the Lake Merritt Plaza building, the cathedral, 1200 Lakeshore, St. Paul Tower, the Grand Lake Theatre and so on. Their owners will cope by reinforcing the basement levels and installing permanent sump pumps.

Buildings of lesser prestige, despite their historic value and charm, will face hard choices well before 2100.

The city will need policies in place to handle sea-level rise. But it’s possible that everything we do to cope can be done in an orderly way. That will require far-sighted city officials, and voters, to ensure sound long-term budgets and timely bond issues.

That will be a test.

On the other hand, a lot can change in a hundred years — just look back to 1918.

This post is dedicated to the people born this year, who will be 82 years old in 2100.