USGS: Mega storms can cause destruction in Calif.

January 14, 2011 7:01:09 PM PST
Scientists warn of a perfect storm scenario in California that would be worse than an earthquake.

It's like a fire hose spewing water non-stop. A new understanding of atmospheric rivers, which are high powered storms that pound an area for days or weeks with rain, shows California could potentially suffer $1 trillion in damage statewide from subsequent floods. The U.S. Geological Survey dubbed that catastrophic storm "The Other Big One."

"The loss numbers are potentially four to five times more than a large earthquake on the San Andreas Fault. Hence, our concern," USGS Director Marcia McNutt, Ph.D. said.

Though it wasn't THE one, Southern California got a taste last month of an atmospheric river, known as an ARkStorm, dropping 17 inches of rain in one part of LA County in three days. The USGS study looked at a worst-case storm: a torrent of tropical rain for nine days straight.

"When you get too much water, it overwhelms the system, and it has to go somewhere else. And that's where it can lead to catastrophe," USGS chief scientist Lucy Jones said.

Other mega storms in California include the one in late December/early January of 1861 and 62, when Governor-elect Leland Stanford famously took a rowboat to his inauguration because it rained for 45 days. The USGS study notes such ARkStorms are rare.

Nonetheless, scientists urge communities and Californians to prepare. Only some levees are built for a 200-year storm.

"If we have better plans, it's going to save lives and properties," Mike Dayton from the California Emergency Management Agency said.

Scientists would like to next develop a storm-rating scale that's similar to the one used for hurricanes. That way, Californians can prepare based on the predicted severity.


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