Today is mudslide day. And I’m not talking cocktails. I’m writing another 500-600 word piece, this time about a guy who studies flowing debris — mudslides and snow avalanches. He sent me a link to a video showing a hillside in Southern Italy that just starts detaching and flowing away. The hill is not even all that steep. I love the “do not enter” sign put in the middle of the street. No kidding? I wish I understood what the guy is screaming in Italian at 1:00. If anybody knows Italian, let me know and I’ll update…

The point being that we don’t really have a clue why some slopes slide and others stay put after a week of torrential rain. The state of the art in predicting natural disasters is in fact fairly lame. The Swiss are masters of avalanche prediction, but even so, they can only issue generalized risk levels and lots of people die every year despite the warning bulletins.

It reminded me of when we were living Davis, California back in the 1990s and I spent an election cycle as a single-issue voter. At the time, the Republican candidate for governor, Pete Wilson, wanted to spend a lot of money upgrading the Folsom dam so developers could build more housing in the American River flood plain (which just happens to be the greater Sacramento area, inhabited by about half a million people). I felt very strongly that taxpayer money shouldn’t be spent to further enrich developers and insurance companies. You shouldn’t build housing in a flood plain! Doh! Farm it, do something else, but people shouldn’t live there. IT’S A FLOOD PLAIN!

At the time property values were skyrocketing and the developers were making out like bandits, jam-packing cheaply constructed cookie-cutter houses on former fields on the outskirts of towns and cities all over California. Then selling them for a fortune. It turned out that the rest of the state cared a lot more about abolishing affirmative action and stopping illegal immigration than about the Folsom Dam, and Wilson won the election easily. (Yolo was one of only seven counties that voted for his opponent; the other holdouts were San Francisco, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Alameda).

Ironically, in July the very next year, a spillway gate on the dam broke and nearly 40% of the reservoir drained into the San Francisco Bay. The salmon and striped bass populations thought all the fresh water meant it was fall and they took off, thinking it was time to migrate. As anyone who has ever lived in the Central Valley of California knows, it NEVER, EVER rains between May and November. It took the Bureau of Reclamation a year to figure out that the accident was caused by a “design flaw.”

I just read on Wikipedia that “Upgrades to provide increased flood protection for Sacramento are scheduled to be completed in 2015.” And “The Bureau of Reclamation’s Safety of Dams Program determined the risk of flooding in the Sacramento area made it one of the most at-risk communities in the United States.” Right. I wonder which insurance companies and developer’s associations are behind this dramatic statement and all that government funding. “But, Mary, if we don’t fund the dam(n) project, millions of people will DIE!”

The Onion did a priceless spoof report about a memorial built to honor, in advance, the victims of the inevitable Folsom dam collapse (presumably caused by lack of funding). Click on the link under the picture to go to their site and watch the film.

Preemptive Memorial Honors Future Victims Of Imminent Dam Disaster

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