Oh So Sad: Why the Deaths in Washington Are a Wake Up Call for Southern California

 

With the tragedy of Oso, Washington, still in the news, and bodies still being unearthed as I write this, I can’t help but recall CURE’s first-ever project back in 1997: a massive effort to ensure that the residents of Rancho Cucamonga have adequate

OSO-MUDSLIDE2-512x341px protection from flooding and mud flows. After years of work, and despite belated acknowledgement from government officials that CURE's concerns about increased risks of flooding in the Deer Creek watershed were justified, nothing has been done yet to prevent the kind of devastation caused by massive debris flows.

 

Back then, CURE demanded that an independent safety study be conducted before the City of Rancho Cucamonga allowed a 40-foot high levee to be demolished to make way for a new housing development. Accepting the Army Corps’ assertions that an upslope debris basin built in the 1980s would protect the public, and believing the Corps’ position absolved it from liability, the City allowed the levee to be graded.

 

The City went ahead despite technical studies sponsored by CURE and others proving that the Corps’ debris basin was less than one tenth of the size it needed to be to protect the area from catastrophic flooding and/or mudslides. You can read the story of CURE’s campaign to stop the demolition of the Deer Creek levee here, here and here.

 

In 1997, before the Katrina Hurricane, local homeowners couldn’t imagine that the Army Corps might have actually built a grossly inadequate debris dam, and government officials were completely unwilling to cooperate with sponsoring an independent safety study, despite evidence from some of the world’s leading flood hydrologists that the undersized debris dam could not handle the historic rainfall on these watersheds – and that people would almost certainly die within minutes of it failing.

 

Click here for a copy of the April, 2000 report by the leading engineering firm Exponent, which concluded that the Deer Creek Debris Basin is too small to contain potential debris flow from a 100-year storm.

 

NYT ad re Army Corps-Deer Creek-335pxIn 2000, Senators Boxer and Feinstein asked that before the levee was demolished, the Corps participate in a National Academy of Science study of the safety and adequacy of flood protection infrastructure, but the Corps and local flood agencies still refused. Only after the Senators pressured the State of California to convene a task force did the State Department of Water Resources (DWR) admit that the dam’s actual size was less than a third the size the Corps claimed.

 

Click here for a pdf copy of the State’s letter conceding that the dam is undersized, followed by a response from CURE.

 

Click here for a pdf copy of the 2002 DWR Task Force Report on the Deer Canyon Debris Basin.

 

Though CURE acknowledged and appreciated the State’s efforts, its findings were based on a perfunctory review that fell far short of the thorough analysis needed -- and worse, after issuing the DWR Task Force Report, the State never undertook any action to solve the problem.

 

Most shocking, however, was that no elected officials were willing to slow down home building in consideration of the reality that many peoples’ lives could be completely destroyed because they happen to live in the path of possibly massive mudslides. This is because so much money was to be made with the housing boom. Bruce Karatz, former CEO of KB Homes (who was later indicted for other reasons) bragged to Forbes magazine in 2002 about how many millions of dollars were being made building homes in Rancho Cucamonga. Yet KB and other home builders had received extensive documentation including the State of California’s findings before they built those homes.

 

This last week, the nation watched as rescue workers and families tried to dig out bodies with their bare hands in Washington State. Even as this blog is written, the vast majority of bodies have not been found. The mudslide happened within minutes -- if not seconds -- and no one had time to escape the deluge. Nor was any of this a surprise. The area of Oso, like Deer and Cucamonga Creeks, was prone to mud and debris flows throughout the 20th Century.

 

Another sobering similarity regarding Deer Creek: there will be no warning and no escape when tens of millions of tons of debris devastate lives and homes in Cucamonga.

 

Please click here to for background information about the history of floods in Rancho Cucamonga.

 

Only now as the tragedy unfolds is the public asking whether the government should have allowed homes to be built at Oso in the first place. Private property interests and the pioneering belief that man can control nature inevitably makes Americans feel both entitled and invulnerable. But building in flood-prone areas no longer economically sustainable -- as the federal debt reaches trillions and FEMA no longer can provide affordable disaster insurance. Beyond that, how could insurance ever compensate for the precious lives lost or ever truly rebuild shattered communities?

 

Now that the economy is beginning to bounce back, the City of Rancho Cucamonga and County of San Bernardino will once again start issuing even more building permits under Cucamonga and Deer Creeks. In light of the now blemished reputation of the Army Corps after Katrina and the devastation we are witnessing in Washington state, CURE asks: Isn’t it high time we -- concerned residents, businesses, elected officials, and community-based nonprofits -- have the foresight and courage to demand a National Academy of Sciences safety study -- and place a moratorium on new building until it is completed?

 

In the shadow of Deer and Cucamonga Creeks are thousands of homes, schools, an international airport and a wonderful life style offered only in California’s sprawling suburbia. The families living in Oso also probably thought they were incredibly fortunate to live in such beautiful surroundings, until, of course, they lost everything -- including their lives or the lives their precious loved ones.

 

CURE extends our prayers to those survivors. We hope their tragic losses will serve to encourage elected officials do what is right.

 

And CURE renews our almost 20 year request that federal, state and local officials take action on Cucamonga Creek and Deer Creek to prevent even more people’s lives being placed at risk. CURE advocates:

 

1.  No more building, until either

  • a National Academy of Sciences or other independent technical study certifies that the Deer Canyon debris basin is adequate protection from a 100-year type storm, or: 
  • the Deer Creek levee is rebuilt.

2.  That all remaining open space in the Deer Creek-Day Creek Alluvial fan remain untouched -- both to preserve wildlife habitat and to act as the precious groundwater recharge designed nearly a century ago.

 

-- Posted by Marylinda H. McKeith, April 4, 2014

 

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