On Deadline: Could a quake/tsunami hit Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park? You bet
Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson on Mar 18, 2011
It doesn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision (1) a big shake on the Hayward Fault, deemed at highest risk for a big shakeout, just ahead of the infamous San Andreas; (2) a surge of water moving down the bay; (3) a wind pushing the surge; (4) a high-tide -- they happen twice daily; (5) a rainstorm that has filled local creeks; and (6) a power outage that stops Palo Alto's pumps (remember the El Nino storm of February 1998?).
One hopes, of course, that those conditions never line up. But there's always Murphy's Law: "Anything that can go wrong, will. ..."
The possibility of really really bad things happening right here at home is "old news" in many ways. There are scores of people, perhaps hundreds, involved in one way or another in trying to get Palo Alto and surrounding communities better prepared for earthquakes, floods and other natural or man-made disasters -- the big kind that impact the entire city or region.
Advances have been made, such as improved communication systems between agencies and a fast telephone dial-up warning or alert system. Yet citizens and officials involved are the first to admit that the community is far from being truly prepared.
Neither neighborhoods nor families nor individuals are ready in terms of having adequate emergency drinking water and food set aside, adequate emergency First Aid kits, enough training, "Go Boxes" for their most precious possessions and papers, or a neighborhood or family emergency plan.
The news that the bay may pose a disaster threat also is pretty old.
In 1975 I wrote a piece for the former Palo Alto Times reporting a study that cited an urgent need to rebuild the levees surrounding the South Bay, most from the building of salt ponds over the decades. Pumping out groundwater for the fast-growing Santa Clara Valley was causing the land to subside, and that included a drop in levee height of up to 5 or 6 feet. (Subsidence has since been halted by percolation ponds that maintain the underground water table.)
But sea level stayed the same, putting the entire South Bay at greater risk of serious high-tide flooding.
The 1975 estimate to rebuild the levees was $95 million, a paltry sum today but real money a third of a century ago.
Then engineers came up with a better idea: Rather than rebuilding the twisting, in-and-out levees on the bay side of the wetlands and salt ponds they proposed building a concrete wall on the landward side, much shorter. This idea horrified those who loved the view of the wetlands and the bay, and the idea was stomped to death.
To my knowledge, there has never since been a region-wide repair of the levees, although work has been done here and there.
And a new concern has arisen: a possible rise in sea level due to global warming -- now accepted as real by most independent climate scientists around the world. A conservative estimate is that within 50 years there would be about a 2 foot 2 inch rise in sea level, which also means "bay level." Some projections are worse, including up to a 55-inch rise.
Two feet doesn't sound like much, but it would be equivalent to the feared "100-year flood," the common standard used for flood preparations (meaning a flood with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year). A 2-foot sea level rise would be equivalent to a fairly typical high tide of today -- then would come the tide.
Should the bay overtop the levees, or if the levees fail under storm battering, large areas of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto would be subject to flooding. People pretty much know where the water would go in Palo Alto based on the 1998 flood, when the storm-swollen San Francisquito Creek overflowed. In addition to the main overtopping at the Chaucer Street Bridge there were 17 other spots reported on both sides of the creek, where water slopped over into all three communities.
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) has issued a flood-risk map, and the Pacific Institute also recently issued such a map showing both the 100-year flood zone with a 55-inch rise in sea level added in dark blue. Both maps show immense areas of the cities being submerged, clear to Louis Road and beyond in Palo Alto.
How deep? There were deep waters in parts of Palo Alto in 1998, as firefighters rescued people from homes. Yet mostly the water was wading level, and rose slowly, not in a big surge.
The worst local threat is to East Palo Alto's low-lying Gardens neighborhood, where several hundred homes could be inundated by up to a potentially deadly 8 to 10 feet of water. The Weekly called it a potential "mini-New Orleans" in an editorial following Hurricane Katrina -- helping free up stalled federal funding for continuing a study of flood threats from the creek.
For many years the battle over how to make the creek safer has churned between the communities, until the San Francisco Creek Joint Powers Authority brought the three cities and two counties together more than a decade ago.
The threat from the bay has mostly been ignored, however.
No longer. Len Materman, the executive director of the creek JPA, has repeatedly called attention to the possible "other source" of flooding. And things are moving at last.
A major study of the flood potential and what might be done to protect the communities is due out by June 1, sponsored by the Army Corps, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Coastal Commission. But Palo Alto's bayfront won't be part of that, the Corps and water district decided March 8. They shifted the study's priority to more vulnerable areas -- such as Alviso.
Materman says the JPA may be able to pick up the Palo Alto portion, which would cover from San Francisquito Creek to the Charleston Slough just south of Palo Alto. The creek and tides are tightly connected. Menlo Park and East Palo Alto shorelines are already being studied and some work has been done in Palo Alto.
Meanwhile, a major emergency-preparedness "fair" is being planned in Palo Alto for Sunday, May 1. Check Web Link .
An e-mail announcement says it all: "It can happen here. This is another wake-up call."
At least we have no nuclear plant.
on Mar 20, 2011 at 2:09 am
We can never rule anything out, but in terms of a surge pushing all the way down to the bay due to a tsunami ... I'm a little skeptical.
The reason I am skeptical is that if said giant tsunami is not high enough to go over the mountains that protect us the only surge that will be able to push a volume of water into the bay would be the golden gate.
Assuming it is a pulse of water ... a wave that surges in and then washes out ... only a certain amount of water would be able to pass through the golden gate ... even if it was 30 or 40 or even more feet high, how much actual volume of water would make it into the bay, and as it levels out how much would it fill the bay as far south.
I think a reasonable calculation could be made if one had the numbers of how high the wave is for how long and has fast it washes out. I question if the results would be anything like a 55 inch rise in sea level ... because that would be a steady state phenomenon, where a tidal wave would be wash of water in and out depending on the volume and frequency of the wave it is questionably whether that wave would push significantly all the way to the end of the bay.
Obviously if the tidal wave was big enough and lasted long enough it would fill the whole bay. I'd love to see if someone has done a simulation using values of the maximum measured rise and fall of sea level over the maximum time of the wave and apply that to a rush of water through the golden gate.
All things being equal I would much rather be here than in say New Your City/Manhattan which is the exact opposite of our configuration. Of course we could get the huge earthquake we CA is supposed to fall into the ocean like Atlantis, and we can never plan for something like that.
on Mar 21, 2011 at 12:32 am
The headline of this article claims that a tsunami could hit Palo Alto. The body of the article talks about the pumping out of ground water, global warming, problems with San Francisquito Creek, 100 year floods, ... However, the body of the article doesn't even contain the word 'tsunami'! I wish the author had chosen a more suitable headline - he apparently is capitalizing on current events to talk about real problems, but it seems that a tsunami in Palo Alto is not one of them.
For actual information about tsunamis in the bay, see
Web Link. While this report only mentions the south bay in passing, it appears that even with their worst case scenario (a 9.2 in the Aleutians, not on the Hayward fault), the water level in Palo Alto would only rise a few inches.
on Mar 21, 2011 at 9:20 am
Good lord! The author of this article has demonstrated little, or no, knowledge of the mechanics of tsunamis. With the USGS so close, one would have thought that someone writing on this topic would at least have tried to talk to a geologist, or someone familiar with tsunamis, before committing this much time to something that is not substantiated with fact.
Oddly, everything written here (more of a memory dump of problems surrounding San Francisquito Creek than anything else) is true--just not applicable to the topic in the headline.
(And this is supposed to pass as quality "journalism".)