Covering a Disaster That Hasn’t Happened Yet (New York Times)

Raymond Zhong

Times Insider

Giant rainstorms have ravaged California before. Times journalists combined data, graphics and old-fashioned reporting to explore what the next big one might look like.

Rudy Mussi, a farmer in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of California, has lived through two devastating levee failures near his land. Neither experience made him want to go farm somewhere else.
Credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Aug. 25, 2022

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Not long ago, when I heard that California officials were embarking on an ambitious, multiyear effort to study one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history, I knew there would be a lot of interesting material to cover. There was just one wrinkle: The disaster hadn’t happened yet — it still hasn’t.

The California water authorities wanted to examine a much bigger and more powerful version of the rainstorms the state often gets in winter. The milder ones replenish water supplies. But the strong ones cause devastating flooding and debris flows. And the really strong ones, like those that have hit the Pacific Coast several times over the past millennium, can erase whole landscapes, turning valleys and plains into lakes.

As global warming increases the likelihood and the intensity of severe storms, the state’s Department of Water Resources wanted to know: What would a really big (yet plausible) storm look like today? How well would we handle it?

As a climate reporter for The New York Times, I had a pretty good idea of how to tell the first part of the story. The department was starting its study by commissioning two climate scientists to construct a detailed play-by-play of how a monthlong storm might unload its precipitation throughout the state. (And what a lot of precipitation it would be: nearly 16 inches, on average, across California, according to the scientists’ simulations, and much more in mountainous areas.)

All that detail would help operators of dams and other infrastructure pinpoint how much water they might get at specific times and places. It would also allow the graphics wizards at The Times to bring the storm to stunning visual life in our article, which we published this month.

But to make the article more than an academic recounting of a computer-modeling exercise, I knew I had to find ways to ground this future storm strongly in the present. And as I started reporting, I realized this was what a lot of people in the flood-management world were trying to do, too. Unlike traffic congestion, air pollution or even drought, flood risk isn’t in people’s faces most of the time. Forecasters and engineers have to keep reminding them that it’s there.

I realized this wasn’t a story about predicting the future at all. Like a lot of climate stories, it was about how humans and institutions function, or fail to function, when faced with catastrophic possibilities whose arrival date is uncertain.

The near-catastrophe Californians remember most vividly is the 2017 crisis at the Oroville Dam, north of Sacramento. The dam’s emergency spillway nearly collapsed after heavy rainstorms, prompting the evacuation of 188,000 people. The state authorities spent the next few years reinspecting dams and re-evaluating safety needs. Yet I found signs that all this attention might already be starting to fade, even when it came to Oroville itself.

For every example of proactive thinking on flood risks, I found instances where budgets, political exigencies or other complications had gotten in the way. I visited flood-prone communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with Kathleen Schaefer, an engineer formerly with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She helped prepare the last major study of a hypothetical California megastorm, over a decade ago, and she recalled the frosty reception her and her colleagues’ work had received in some official circles.

She described the attitude she encountered this way: “If you can’t do anything about it, if it’s such a big problem, then you don’t want to stick your head out and raise it, because then you’re supposed to do something about it. So it’s better just to be like, ‘Oh, I hope it doesn’t happen on my watch.’”

I also sought out Californians who had suffered the effects of flooding firsthand. One reason the state is so vulnerable is that so many people and their homes and assets are in inundation-prone places. The reasons they stay, despite the dangers, are complex and often deeply personal.

Rudy Mussi has lived through two devastating levee failures near his land, in a part of the Delta called the Jones Tract. Neither experience made him want to go farm somewhere else. He recently invested millions in almond trees.

“Even though there’s risk,” Mr. Mussi told me, “there’s people willing to take that risk.”

Bob Ott grows cherries, almonds and walnuts in the fertile soil along the Tuolumne River. As we drove through his orchards on a rickety golf cart, he showed me where the water had rushed in during the 2017 storms.

Mr. Ott said he knew his land was bound to flood again, whether from a repeat of rains past or from a future megastorm. Still, he would never consider leaving, he said. His family has been farming there for the better part of a century. “This is part of us,” he said.