California Cities Will Flood, So Why Aren’t We Ready?

After big natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, federal officials often tighten up flood protection standards. That’s what happened in California after Hurricane Katrina twelve years ago.

But many flood-prone communities are still struggling to meet those standards, including Sacramento, one of the riskiest flood zones in the country.

Some residents there nervously watched as the floodwaters rose in Houston.

“One of our friends actually had to be evacuated out of the Woodlands,” says Cynthia Hextell of Natomas, a suburb north of downtown Sacramento.

 “That definitely was a reality check,” she says. “You’re thinking: could that happen? Because I’m sure the people in Houston didn’t think it could happen to them.”

Hextell knows how people do—and don’t—think about risk. She’s also a realtor in Natomas, where rows of tidy housing developments have been springing up since the early 2000s.

“There is such a demand up here,” she says. “In the past month, I’ve probably helped six families move up from the Bay Area.”

But flood risk generally isn’t on the minds of potential buyers.

“Never,” Hextell says. “I have never had that come up.”

But the only thing keeping Natomas homes dry is a ring of levees, 42-miles around. The homes are built in a low-lying area surrounded by rivers and canals.

“During a flood event, the flood depth would be 10- to-25 feet,” says Jim McDonald, a principal planner for the City of Sacramento.

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