Sunday, February 27, 2005

Extreme Weather in Southern California: looking at Mike Davis again

In the last week in February 2005 Southern California has had flash floods that covered the Hollywood Freeway and blocks of Hollywood; a stretch of the San Gabriel Mountains right near Mt. Wilson which a gotten 100" of rain a year; water spout-like hurricanes off Santa Monica; avalanche conditions in the San Gabriel Mountains; a huge sinkhole opened up in the middle of the road in Sun Valley where an engineer died; and mud slides in Malibu, Pasadena, Brentwood, Silverlake, Hacienda Heights et al.

When Mike Davis published in 1998 his book Ecology of Fear detailing Southern California's extreme weather, he was loudly criticized as a catastrophe-monger, a man who looked everywhere and saw Apocalypse. A Malibu realtor named Brady Westwater sent a 22-page letter containing Davis's supposed flaws to local media, and then local media starting with New Times regurgitated Westwater without fact-checking him. No media this last week would now argue with Davis's contention that Los Angeles has extreme weather.

In Davis's first chapter of Ecology of Fear, he explains extreme weather and environmental hazards in Southern California better than any book I know. He details thirty years of scientific research to understand "deep history of Mediterranean landscapes" which include Southern California, Italy, central Chile, the costal zone of South African's Cape Province and West and South Australia. Both drought and regular fires are centuries-long features of the Meditarrean environment, so plants have adapted: they are drought-resitant and some need fire to send off seeds. The first Spanish explorers saw evidence of great floods and experienced earthquakes, but the Spanish had long familiarity with the Mediterranean climate of Southern Spain.

The problem is that Anglo-Americans were familiar with the ecology of England and eastern United States: regular seasons with rainfall that didn't vary that much over the years; rivers that ran year-round; and stable ground without earthquakes. They based their ideas of natural law on the "uniformitariaism" of these eastern environments where one year was very much like the previous. So Anglo-Americans based their ideas of "average" climate and rainfall on this Eastern ecology, thinking of Los Angles as having a naturally sunny, warm climate. Then they created a whole publicity campaign that successfully sold the image of California as endlessly sunny, pleasant climate. This image of Southern California just wasn't true.

In Mediteranean climates like Los Angles Davis says "high-intensity , low-frequency events ('disasters') are the ordinary agents of landscape and ecology change." Our ecology naturally produces floods, mudslides, drought, and fire while our geology produces earthquakes. In a ecology where fires, floods, and mudslides regularly occur, they occur most extremely in floodplains at the base of mountains: Los Angeles is one such floodplain at the base of the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains. Davis adds, "consequently, [these floodplains] are at risk from multiple-interlinked disaster .... Drought, for examples, dries fuel for wildfires which, in turn, removed ground cover and makes soils impermeable to rain."

But throughout the 20th century people have ignored Southern California's ecology of disaster and have ignored common sense in building homes. They have put homes in harm's way: homes have been built in areas such as La Conchita or on the cliffs in Mailbu which have regular mudslides; homes have been built all over the foothills and mountains which have fires occurring every decade; a huge city in a semi-desert has been built with little conserving of water flooding down in winterstorms. Davis feels most of the tragedies such as the recent nine deaths from the mudslide in La Conchita were avoidable if we treated the land differently.

Further, after each flood or fire or earthquake the federal government through FEMA gives low-interest loans or even outright disaster aid for people to rebuild in the same dangerous areas. Davis argues this "diaster amnesia is a federally subsidized luxury." Right now FEMA has been on the radio announcing it will give its low-interest loans to homeowners affected by the recent mudslides.

Davis argues instead building in "redundancy" in emergency systems to help us through our extreme weather and geology as well as reduce their impact. Extreme weather will occur again, but Davis feels we can reduce its impact through "hazard zoning": exluding intensive housing on "most disaster-prone terrains" of foothills and wetlands . Also, increasing apartments inside the city instead of sprawling new housing through more disaster-prone foothills and plains would save money on flood control systems.

The federal government should end its low-interest loans to homeowners on dangerous hillsides previously harmed by flood or fires. Homeowners can rebuild, but the taxpayers won't subsidize them. If some homeowners then abandon their hillside homes, the city could buy the land from them and we might wind up with more hillside parks--Los Angeles desperately needs new parks. We already have tougher requirements for retrofitting buildings to make them earthquake-safe.

In the past Southern California has had regular droughts, so it needs to adopt a saving water ethic including having catchbasins and barrels to catch rainwater using it to water gardens, lawns and parks. Also, we could get rid many lawns and instead use drought-resistant plants in our gardens as these reduce our use of water. In Los Angeles we've already adopted low-flush toilets and showerheads--that is good. This redundancy in our water use would lessen the impact of the next drought.

Davis's ideas on how to avoid the harm of future floods, earthquakes, drought, and mudslides are sensible and practical. He is hardly, as his critics have said, a man yelling catastrophe about Los Angels but a man with intelligent ideas how to avoid catastrophe. It those like Westwater and Davis' critics who ignore such sensible ideas to make people safe that are the producers of disaster.


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