Unheeded warnings and their big consequences

By THOMAS D. ELIAS / Contributing columnist

Ask the residents of San Jose’s drying-out Rock Springs neighborhood and other nearby areas if it pays to ignore warnings about future disasters that seem in normal times to be nothing more than distant, negative fantasies.

During the heavy rains of February, when a crisis caused by a poorly built spillway at the Oroville Dam drew worldwide headlines, the San Jose neighborhood and areas around it suffered at least $50 million of avoidable damage to private property and about $23 million in public property damage. Some estimates of the total toll come to more than $100 million.

That’s in addition to $22 million in emergency fixes the city and the Santa Clara Valley Water District now propose.

Avoidable? Unnecessary? You bet. Even as 14,000 residents of the flood plain of San Jose’s Coyote Creek were forced to flee, local water district officials remembered their early 2000s dealings with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with managing flood controls all over the country.

But the Corps opted not to work on Coyote Creek. After five years of negotiating with the Santa Clara Valley Water District to create levees and other improvements keeping water away from low-lying Rock Springs, the Corps begged off. It cited an obscure rule forbidding projects when their cost is more than the likely damage from a single major flood.

Oops. The cost of the improvements protecting Rock Springs would have been about $7.4 million. That’s less than 10 percent of the damage inflicted by Coyote Creek in February.

The total of actual damages and possible new flood control measures make the 2003 statement of Lt. Col Michael McCormick, then the Army Corps’ district commander in San Francisco, look silly: “The economic evaluation found the benefits, i.e. the reduction in flood damages, were not significant enough to justify the costs of improvement,” he said.

McCormick is long gone,…

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