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Lost in the history books is a story of the greatest storm to devastate California. Maybe it was forgotten because it occurred across 1861 to 1862 when the Civil War dominated the nation’s attention. What wasn’t forgotten was the devastating effect the rain and resulting floods had on the people living in California.
Over 45 days the rains never stopped beginning in December of 1861 and continuing into January of 1862. It came down in torrents and melted the snow in the mountains adding to the deluge. It was called an ArkStorm and is still studied to this day by the U.S. Geological Survey, not only for its historical significance but because the USGS knows it will happen again.
What’s chilling is that the changing weather conditions on the West coast make it likely to happen sooner rather than later.
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What is an ARkStorm?
Despite what it seems to indicate, an ARkStorm has nothing to do with Noah or his ark. The “AR” stands for “atmospheric river,” and the “k” stands for a storm that hypothetically only happens once every 1,000 years. Unfortunately, the USGS believes it can and will begin to happen with greater frequency.
Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. These columns of vapor move with the weather, carrying an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow.
Although atmospheric rivers come in many shapes and sizes, those that contain the largest amounts of water vapor and the strongest winds can create extreme rainfall and floods, often by stalling over watersheds vulnerable to flooding.
These events can disrupt travel, induce mudslides, and cause catastrophic damage to life and property. A well-known example is the “Pineapple Express,” a strong atmospheric river that is capable of bringing moisture from the tropics near Hawaii over to the U.S. West Coast.
What was remarkable about the storm of 1861-62 was that the flooding created inland seas along the length of California. These low lying areas still exist, and this is what California would look like if another ARkStorm occurred today.
In an extensive study done by the USGS the impacts of an ARkStorm on California today came to a disastrous conclusion.
Potential Impact of an ARkStorm:*
- In many cases flooding overwhelms the state’s flood-protection system, which is typically designed to resist 100- to 200-year runoffs.
- The Central Valley experiences hypothetical flooding 300 miles long and 20 or more miles wide. Serious flooding also occurs in Orange County, Los Angeles County, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, and other coastal communities.
- Wind speeds in some places reach 125 miles per hour, hurricane-force winds. Across wider areas of the state, winds reach 60 miles per hour.
- Hundreds of landslides damage roads, highways, and homes.
- Property damage exceeds $300 billion, most from flooding.
- Demand surge (an increase in labor rates and other repair costs after major natural disasters) could increase property losses by 20 percent.
- Agricultural losses and other costs to repair lifelines, dewater (drain) flooded islands, and repair damage from landslides, brings the total direct property loss to nearly $400 billion, of which $20 to $30 billion would be recoverable through public and commercial insurance.
- Power, water, sewer, and other lifelines experience damage that takes weeks or months to restore.
- Flooding evacuation could involve 1.5 million residents in the inland region and delta counties.
- Business interruption costs reach $325 billion in addition to the $400 billion property repair costs, meaning that an ARkStorm could cost on the order of $725 billion, which is nearly 3 times the loss deemed to be realistic by the authors for a severe southern California earthquake, an event with roughly the same annual occurrence probability.
*These impacts were estimated by a team of 117 scientists, engineers, public-policy experts, insurance experts, and employees of the affected lifelines assembled by the U.S. Geological Service (USGS).
Can it Happen Anywhere Else?
It already has. ARkStorms have slammed the entire west coast of the United States from California up through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia in Canada and up along Alaska’s western coast. But it’s not limited to the west coast.
Atmospheric rivers can spread across North America fueling everything from torrential rain to snowstorms and tornadoes. What’s concerning to many is that as climate change alters weather patterns, events like ARkStorms may not only increase in frequency but also intensity.
Preparing for an ARkStorm
Considering all of the studies and research on the coming ARkStorms you would think there would be a good amount of information about individual preparedness for these growing atmospheric rivers.
Unfortunately, most of the preparations are defined for local emergency management, municipalities, utilities and government agencies. So far, little has been put out for personal preparedness. The only thing to do at this point is consider the potential threats and prepare as best you can.
The threats include:
And this isn’t about your conventional flood. Imagine floodwaters that don’t recede for months. That was the case in 1862 and the closest modern precedent was the flooding in New Orleans following the levee failure caused by Hurricane Katrina.
If you live in a lowland area subject to flooding, you should plan for a bugout to either a relative or friends home or a bugout location. Make sure you have key documents and valuables with you. Floodwaters that remain for weeks if not months will destroy all that’s left behind.
Mudslides and Landslides
Even the heavy rain from a conventional thunderstorm can trigger a mudslide or landslide. The incessant rain that an ARkStorm could deliver will make mudslides and landslides common even in areas not previously affected.
Take a good look at the geography of your location. If there is high ground above you or if you live on high ground next to a steep gradient – you may be in the path of a quick and deadly slide.
It’s easy to assume that kind of location will protect you from flooding, but mudslides are a significant threat. Predicting them is difficult and they can be as sudden as an avalanche. This may be another bugout scenario. If the rain starts and the forecast is that it won’t stop anytime soon – bug out.
But Bugging Out May be Impossible
Any bugout is a challenge mostly due to the traffic that comes with mass evacuations. But there’s a real difference with an ARkStorm.
Unlike earthquakes, tornadoes and even hurricanes with relatively short durations an ARkStorm never seems to quit. It just goes on and on and as time passes things get exponentially worse.
Roads and Bridges will be Out
The combination of widespread flooding, continuing mudslides and landslides and the effect of rising river waters on bridges will quickly turn every road and highway into desperate and isolated parking lots. This would not only make evacuations impossible but tremendously limit the ability of emergency services to provide any level of relief.
If you absolutely have to bugout, map out alternative routes and be prepared to survive on the road and off the road.
Outages of Everything
Most power outages last for hours. ARkStorm power outages may last for weeks and even months. While bugging out may seem like a dangerous escape, bugging in may require someone to endure a life without electricity, heat, refrigeration and fresh water.
Preparations for emergency power generation, food storage, water storage and purification, medical supplies, communication and anything else you would need to survive an extended time without power, heat, food, or clean water are necessary steps, especially for an ARkStorm.
Loss of Essential Services
The failure of FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is well documented.
In actual fact, the disaster area around New Orleans was small in comparison to the level of disaster from an ARkStorm. Every essential service will be overwhelmed including fire, police, local emergency management, hospitals and even the National Guard will be at the mercy of events.
Additionally, stores will be shuttered or flooded. No groceries, no gas, no prescription pharmaceuticals, no mail at least not to most addresses, none of the everyday supplies and resources for as long as the rockslides block the roads and the floodwaters stand. To this day, many parts of New Orleans remain abandoned and in ruins.
Can This Really Happen?
Based on the level of research by the USGS, the NOAA and other government and state agencies it’s not only a likely event, but inevitable. All of the evidence indicates that there is a 50/50 chance of this happening before 2060.
For the record, ARkStorms are nothing new. Weather conditions creating atmospheric rivers happen all the time. The big question is the size and duration of the next big ARkStorm.
All indications point to the potential for a catastrophic event that is both widespread and devastating. Across your list of preparations for anything, add ARkStorms as a likely disaster especially if you live on the west coast.
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