Editor's notes: The flood at home

How would the Bay Area fare in a big storm? It's not pretty, but worth thinking about while we can


EDITORS NOTES My brother was lucky -- the old-growth maple and oak trees around his house in Putnam Valley, NY didn't fall over, and his roof didn't blow off. The electricity was off for a week, which meant the water pump didn't work, but he hauled buckets up from a nearby stream to flush the toilets. He heats with a wood stove. He'd stocked a few cases of beer in advance and filled up the truck with gas.

"It's an inconvenience," he told me. "But we're fine. We're rednecks; the fear the IRS, not hurricanes."

But he's 50 miles north of New York City -- where people aren't so fine. When I was in college, we used to go to hang out on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, New Jersey in the summer; it's not there any more. Staten Island is an utter disaster area. Parts of Long Island may never recover.

Hurricanes weren't part of the picture when most of New York was developed; Sandy was what you would once call a 100-year storm. Now, the weather folks are saying, this sort of thing will be fairly common. The mid-Atlantic is warmer. The tides are higher. We've already changed the climate dramatically, and we aren't doing nearly enough to change direction.

So unless something radical happens, big sections of the world's leading financial center are going to be underwater fairly often.

Jeffrey Mount, professor of geology at UC Davis, was on KQED's Forum this morning talking about how incredibly expensive it is to protect low-lying urban areas against the now-inevitable storm surges and flooding; we're talking multiples of tens of billions of dollars. And, he said, if the business community doesn't step up, it isn't going to happen.

And when he talked about the "business community," he wasn't just talking about New York. It's no secret that the Bay Area is also in a precarious position, not just because of the earthquake we all know is coming but because we're in a coastal area, too, and the waters of the Bay are rising, and if you put together an El Nino year, a king tide and one of those big wet storms out of the West ... it's not going to be pretty.

And nobody in the Bay Area seems remotely prepared.

Imagine flooded BART and Muni tunnels, underground electrical transformers exploding, sewers backing up, power off for days or more, a foot or two of water in the Financial District. And it would be worse on the Peninsula, where, Mount noted, Google, Facebook, and Apple could find their headquarters inundated and unusable.

The point is that climate change and its impacts, particularly on sea-level rise, are an issue right here at home. Since 2009, SPUR, the normally conservative think tank, has been doing studies and reports and talking about everything from massive new investments in sea walls to wetland restoration to "strategic retreat" -- that is, moving residential and commercial development away from shorelines -- but I don't see any of that happening.

A lot of downtown San Francisco -- and the Marina, and parts of the Mission and the Southeast -- are built on fill. That land used to be water. Unless we're planning to act like the Netherlands, and cut off our waterfront with big dikes, they may be underwater again.

It took 50 years to build the existing seawall. Protecting the low-lying areas is a long-term project. And what I see the business community in San Francisco talking about is tax breaks.

Big picture, folks.