Editorials

Ready for California’s next emergency? We hope so

Waves slam the Oceanana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach, N.C., Thursday.
Waves slam the Oceanana Pier & Pier House Restaurant in Atlantic Beach, N.C., Thursday. tlong@newsobserver.com

America is ready for Florence’s visit. That’s what President Donald Trump told us Thursday. We hope his confidence is justified and that people and provisions are in place to respond to this emergency.

We don’t want this to become another Hurricane Harvey, that destroyed 300,000 buildings in Texas. Or, worse, another Hurricane Maria, which killed maybe 64 people (the initial, now-discarded, estimates) or maybe 1,417 (a number supported by statisticians) or even 2,975 (which George Washington University is using now).

Some predict that Florence, moving in slow-motion, will drop 30 inches of water on parts of the Carolinas and Georgia. What happens to the streams that will flash flood through valleys, towns and cities? What happens to overflowing storm-water systems that will back up? What happens to livestock lagoons built to withstand 25 inches of rain – a capacity officials thought would never be needed?

What would happen here?

Looking at the Carolinas, we can feel safely sorry for their tribulations. But we Californians face our own potential catastrophes, for which we surely must be prepared – or be sorry.

▪ Instead of too much rain, we most fear the opposite – drought. We’ve seen what a five-year drought can do. What about one that lasts 10 years? Scientists are predicting such droughts, or longer.

▪ Scientists also warn us to prepare for “weather whiplash,” periods of far too little rain then far too much. Drought kills trees, then deluges create grasses that burn in an instant. Firefighters are still trying to put out 17 fires across the state and we’re not yet out of what is already the worst wildfire season in state history with 1 million acres scorched. We know from sad experience that those fires can burn into cities. Are we ready?

▪ For those who don’t live near a forest, a few old hot-water heaters still pose a threat. A 1982 state law required all new homes (and homes being sold) to brace hot-water heaters so an earthquake can’t shake them loose from the gas supply. A 1991 law extended those rules to all replacement water heaters, too. But it’s a good guess a few homes still have older, unstrapped heaters; if one pulls away from the gas supply, catastrophe could ensue.

▪ Speaking of earthquakes, what about our levees? They’re old, frequently riddled with gopher holes, and some very nearly failed to protect some of our Valley cities just last winter. That more homes have been built in floodplains is a problem. But mostly it’s because we have too long neglected this undervalued part of our essential infrastructure.

▪ Then there’s disease. Hundreds of different diseases – or the bugs that carry them – are moving north with climate change. Tick-borne maladies like Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are arriving in California, though we once believed they’d never get here. Scientists are warning us against the next “super bug,” such as a flu we can’t cure, the next Zika or Ebola. Even Valley Fever is considered a more virulent threat than it as in the past.

We’re glad public officials on the eastern seaboard feel confident they can deal with fearsome Florence. We hope they’re right. For us to be equally confident, the California Department of Public Health says we all should have a plan – for everything ranging from disease outbreaks, to extreme heat, to earthquakes to windstorms.

We can rely on our state’s medical and emergency responders to go above when the next emergency arrives. We must be ready to help. Because that next emergency surely will arrive.

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