February 2018Policy

After California's fire and mud disasters, how should society prevent even worse to come?

In our January 12 Update, the Washington Socialist reported on the deadly landslide of mud and debris that recently devastated the upper-crust community of Montecito, CA, around 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles.

The death toll from that event, which featured a huge river of mud, rock debris, and boulders cascading down from the slope overlooking Montecito to bury yards and streets with mud up to four feet deep, now stands at 21. At press time, two possible victims are still missing, and local and state officials report the landslide destroyed at least 128 houses and damaged more than 300 others, while some 3,000 homes are apparently still at risk.

Nearly one-third of those killed, according to the UK newspaper The Independent, were immigrant workers employed in caring for the homes and grounds of wealthy Montecito residents, who include such Hollywood celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, and Ellen DeGeneres. Now that hundreds of houses in town have been totaled or badly damaged, many of the surviving workers are suffering from unemployment or at risk of it.

Officials in Santa Barbara County, which has legal jurisdiction over Montecito, face other immediate burdens as well: heading off a potential public health crisis with contaminated water, restoring downed telephone and power lines, helping the tourist economy recover, finding housing for survivors, and so on. It may be months before recovery is complete.

What’s getting less media coverage is what Montecito and other Southern California towns similarly at risk of landslides should be doing to head off similar disasters in the future.

As the Washington Socialist noted in its earlier report, the Montecito disaster this year was (broadly speaking) predictable. Marxist environmental historian Mike Davis, in his book Ecology of Fear, and veteran New Yorker writer John McPhee, in his article “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” both warned back in 1998 that wildfires and lethal landslides are a recurrent fact of life in the Los Angeles area.

The expansion of upper-class residential development into the narrow valleys and along the steep hillsides of Southern California have placed human communities in the vicinity of mountains naturally prone to intensely hot wildfires, due to the combustibility of the chaparral vegetation along the steep slopes, McPhee’s article noted. In the wake of very hot fires, terrible mud and debris disasters frequently occur, especially along the top of the pyramid-shaped “alluvial fans” that spread out at the base of the mountains.

On the slopes of the fans, the unstable soil consists of mud and debris swept down during previous landslides, and following heavy rainstorms, entire sections of the hillsides may give way, sometimes at severe costs to local residents.

Moreover, as McPhee explained in 1998, the steepness of the mountains and the repeated tectonic shocks that are common to Southern California have repeatedly fractured the rocks underlying the topsoil above the steepest slopes. When extremely hot chaparral fires erupt in a given area, as they can do once a generation or so, the heat scorches away the vegetation that formerly protected the slopes from water erosion. The hottest fires also release aromatic chemicals that coat the topsoil to form a thin, water-resistant layer that reduces the soil’s capacity to absorb rainfall.

When heavy rains subsequently fall on a burned-over area, as they can do during the winter rainy season, the water, rather than percolating into the ground, scours away the soil along with the underlying rocks, triggering huge rivers of mud mixed with debris—sometimes including boulders the size of trucks—that can roar down slopes at speeds of up to 35–50 miles per hour.

The mudflows at times bury upper-class backyards and swimming pools, wreck houses, carry away parked cars, and kill people unlucky enough to be in the way. This is what happened in Montecito, after the rainy season’s first major storm dropped about an inch of water in 15 minutes on slopes that had been scorched just weeks before by the enormous Thomas Fire, which burned through roughly 281,000 acres of the region from mid-December through mid-January.

The risks that McPhee and Davis warned about in 1998 are already well understood by many local governments, which regularly inform endangered communities of the potential for landslides following big fires. In Montecito, local officials issued hundreds of voluntary evacuation notices as well as mandatory evacuation orders before the mudslide of January 9. But as McPhee wrote in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” residents at risk of mud and debris flows don’t always heed the notices, and once a landslide is underway, there’s scant time to get out of the way.

Adding to public indifference to the risks is the fact that neighborhoods built along landslide-prone slopes generally offer wider views, better air quality, and an attractive closeness to nature that are less available to people living farther down on the alluvial fans. Moreover, a given location may be devastated by a mudslide only once in a generation, or even once in a century, and upper-income homeowners moving into the area may have been assured by developers that while the place suffered mudslide damage in the past, the risks have now been controlled.

Accordingly, as Davis has written in Ecology of Fear, the greater Los Angeles area tends to be prone to “disaster amnesia.” In the wake of the Montecito flows and the Thomas Fire preceding them, some commentators are trying, sometimes rather gently, to dispel the disaster amnesia. It’s not clear the message is getting through very well.

As this article is prepared, some public officials in Montecito and Santa Barbara County are hoping to relax the community’s building restrictions in order to facilitate the repair and/or replacement of damaged houses and the rehousing of residents.

However, at least a few other voices are warning against perpetuating the development patterns that contributed to the damage in the first place. For example, Samantha Raphelson, a reporter for National Public Radio’s “Here and Now,” noted on January 12 that local geological and climate history indicate that “mudslides have been a fact of life in Southern California for decades . . . The National Weather Service's list of floods, mudslides, debris flows and landslides in the area is over 60 pages long.”

After a deadly 2003 mudslide killed 10 people in La Conchita, a small village down the coast from Montecito, Raphelson has reported, a U.S. Geological Survey report prepared afterward found that judging from historical and geological evidence, “landsliding of a variety of types and scales has been occurring at and near La Conchita for many thousands of years, and on a relatively frequent basis . . . . There is no reason to believe this pattern of landsliding will stop."

“The Montecito disaster did not come as a complete surprise,” agrees David Montgomery, a University of Washington professor of earth and space sciences, who commented on lethal landslides in a recent post to The Conversation, an online collaborative project that publicizes the findings of hundreds of scientific researchers.

Given this reality, Montgomery’s post concludes that “it’s time to get serious about landslide zoning, in the way the federal government maps areas at serious risk of flooding . . . . Ultimately, the best way to reduce landslide risk is to avoid building things we value in places where [floods and debris] run-out is likely.” Accordingly, Montgomery argues, “Landslide hazard maps delineating potential run-out zones should be part of local land-use planning. These maps could help guide zoning decisions and better inform homeowners, banks and insurance companies of potential risks.”

Whether Southern California’s local governments and real estate developers are capable of learning from the past, however, is something Davis questioned in Ecology of Fear, and in a recent email exchange with the writer, Davis expressed some skepticism about whether the Montecito disaster will change things much.

As Davis put it in 1998, the Los Angeles area has experienced generations of “market-driven urbanization [that] has transgressed environmental common sense.”

He noted that in the process, “historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and flood plains into industrial districts and housing tracts. Monolithic public works have been substituted for regional planning and a responsible land ethic. As a result, Southern California has reaped flood, fire and earthquake tragedies that were as avoidable, as unnatural, as the [1992] beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets.”

In his email response to a question from the writer about Montecito, Davis has written that better land-use planning to keep development out of hazard-prone areas is an obvious solution, but one that is generally ignored or dismissed.

In 1930, Davis noted, the Olmsted Brothers—a firm headed by two sons of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—produced a “brilliant” land-use plan for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce that addressed “the acute and paradoxical lack of accessible open space for most [LA] residents” by “preserving broad river corridors, building only cabins not expensive homes in the mountains, and zoning out housing in areas prone to slope failure and ground movement in torrential rains and/or earthquake.” The plan was “a working basis for practical solutions that generated both beauty and safety,” Davis stated.

But as Wikipedia’s article about the Olmsted Brothers indicates, the plan was largely ignored by local governments. Over the next 80 years, Los Angeles–area real estate development then proceeded unhindered into fire- and landslide-prone canyons.

“A whole book could be written about the failure of hazard zoning in every part of the country,” Davis told the Washington Socialist. “It's an old concept, just always defeated.”

Davis continued: “This is why it so important, when attributing disasters to global warming, to equally emphasize the market-driven forces that put so many millions of people in harms' way. Indeed, even without climate change, California with its growing population and a system of land use regulation controlled by markets and developers would still experience more and more mega-fires and multi-billion-dollar floods and earthquakes.”

“The socialist solution,” Davis added, “would resemble what Henry George advocated in the 1870s: tax away all the increment in land values and transfer rents to wages and productive investment. Decommodifying land, as we do when we create public parks and infrastructure corridors, is the necessary basis for any serious attack on gentrification, homelessness, artificial hazards and so on.”

As if to underscore Davis’s point, a January 22 article in Greenwire by reporter Jeremy P. Jacobs notes that the landslide risks of building upscale housing on alluvial fans have received the attention of California officials for years now, but so far, local governments have not responded to the warnings.

In 2003, Jacobs reports, in the wake of a San Bernardino County mudslide that killed more than a dozen people, the state legislature convened an Alluvial Fan Task Force to study the risks of alluvial fan development. In 2010, the task force issued a model ordinance outlining rather modest steps cities and counties could take to determine whether proposed building projects would be hazardous or not.

Yet no local government in Southern California subsequently adopted the model ordinance, Jacobs’ story observes. Moreover, as former task force member Susan Lien Longville, chair of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, told Greenwire, there were more than 500,000 proposed building projects approved between 2000 and 2006 in areas where alluvial fans are the most common landform.

Whether the Montecito mudslide, which has followed so many similar events, will change the conversation on development in landslide hazard areas is hard to predict. But with Ellen DeGeneres repeatedly hosting Montecito mudslide survivors so they can tell their stories on her TV program, and with the recent damage that 2017 hurricanes did to Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico still in the public consciousness, there may be a chance that politicians will become a little more willing to address the risks.

Last year, a bill proposing a National Landslides Hazards Reduction Program was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Suzan DelBene, Democrat from the state of Washington. DelBene represents a district that includes the town of Oso, WA, where heavy rains in 2014 triggered a huge landslide that killed 43 local residents. The bill she introduced, HR 1675, has 11 cosponsors and was marked up at the committee level by voice vote, meaning that both Republicans and Democrats in the committee considered it noncontroversial enough to go through without debate or subcommittee hearings.

What HR 1675 would do, according to Rep. DelBene’s communications director Ramsey Cox, is essentially authorize the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to team up with universities to direct grant money to local communities so they can assess landslide risks better using light detection and ranging technologies then produce maps outlining where local landslide risks are located.

According to Cox, supporters for HR 1675 so far include the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Association of American State Geologists, the National Association of State Boards of Geology, and the Geological Society of America.

A companion bill, S 698, has been introduced in the Senate, and Cox has hopes that it could win the support of both Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and ENR Committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein also has expressed interest in the legislation, Cox said.

A modest federal program to increase funding for the mapping of landslide hazards is a far cry from the decommodifying of land that Davis has proposed. But if Representative DelBene’s bill can be enacted, it may signal a shift in the direction of a saner approach to landslide hazards reduction than either California or the U.S. has undertaken so far.

Is it also possible that the Montecito disaster, last year’s remarkably destructive wildfire season, and the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria will move our society toward a more active approach to the risks posed by climate change?

Last December, in a speech delivered in Ventura County just down the coast from Montecito, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared that the Thomas Fire and the terrible fires that devastated the state’s wine country in 2017 are signaling a “new normal” for wildfire damage in a rapidly warming world.

On January 19, in the wake of the Montecito tragedy, Brown in a speech at UC-Davis said that growing risks from mudslide, too, should result from climate change.

“What we saw in Santa Rosa and Napa and Santa Barbara, we don’t try to say what precise part of the causation came from climate change,” Brown declared in that speech.

“But we do know that climate change is occurring, the temperature is rising and that droughts are more frequent and moisture is diminishing. The kind of thing we saw—fires followed by slides—that could become a very regular, recurring set of events.”

As reported by Paul Rogers of the Bay Area News Group, Brown acknowledged that California has made huge progress in reducing smog levels and moving toward more renewable energy development in the last several decades, but in the next generation, society needs to give up reliance on fossil fuels completely, and possibly even create new technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

“Where is humanity going?” Brown asked in his speech. “Are we going to be able to have the wisdom and the skill to put ourselves in a position over the next 50 years to be better off than catastrophically worse off?”

In the wake of last year’s hurricanes and wildfires, and coming after the huge destruction that Hurricane and/or Tropical Storm Sandy caused to coastal New Jersey and New York in 2012, there’s a chance Brown’s message will receive a growing number of listeners. Perhaps democratic socialists can help spread the word.

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