Just last year California was suffering through a historic four-year drought, but now some scientists are warning residents the state could be in store for a superflood that could turn the Central Valley into a lake.
With a series of storms flooding Northern California towns, scientists are starting to worry a historic superflood that last hit the state in 1862 could be right around the corner.
In 2011, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey studied a potential megastorm, called the “ARkStorm,” that could cause $725 billion in damages, destroy a quarter of the buildings in the state, and leave millions of residents homeless.
The ARkStorm was predicted to bring with it massive flooding, hurricane-force winds, and massive landslides making travel impossible and damaging drinking water supplies.
There’s even a historic precedent for the potential superflood. Data shows California is flooded with water from atmospheric rivers powered by Hawaiian tropical waters every 100 to 200 years, and the Golden State could be on the verge of another megastorm.
Between Dec. 1861 and Jan. 1862, the West Coast suffered through the worst natural disaster in its history when 23 inches of rain turned the Central Valley into a lake.
The torrential downpour and resulting superflood caused the deaths of 1,400 immigrants, sent two-story wooden houses floating away, and killed 800,000 cattle, as Berkeley researcher Dr. Lynn Ingram told CBS San Francisco.
“You couldn’t walk around the streets. It was just people scrambling with row boats and little houses floating away and furniture and cows. [Atmospheric rivers] can carry up to ten Mississippi rivers worth of water vapor from the tropics. It’s like a fire hose.”
The only homes that survived were built on former Native American settlements where the tribes told ancient stories that referred to the Sacramento Valley as an inland sea, as the SFGate reported from historical documents.
“Indians living in the vicinity of Marysville left their abodes a week or more ago for the foothills predicting an unprecedented overflow. “
A megastorm with enough water to flood California’s Central Valley could overwhelm the state’s outdated levee system and cause massive damage to the state, as ecologist John Bourgeois told CBS San Francisco.
“In the SF Bay Area there are over 350,000 people that live in the 100 year flood plain. And I am sure the vast majority of them don’t realize that they are living in an area that is at risk.”
When 117 scientists, engineers, and public-policy experts from the USGS studied the ARkStorm, they predicted Central Valley flooding 300 miles long and 20 miles wide that could cause billions in damages.
The historic flood of 1862 was caused by a series of atmospheric rivers powered by Hawaiian tropical waters, and this winter the state has already seen four such storms that have killed at least two people on the West Coast.
Recent California storms have collapsed a bridge causing a freight train to derail, while a giant hole opened in the spillway of the Oroville Dam, the country’s largest dam. A road crew worker was also killed trying to clear a highway.
In Bakersfield, a 20-year-old man drowned when his car plunged into a flooded creek; rescue crews were able to rescue his female passenger, but he was trapped inside when his vehicle sank beneath the water.
A portion of the I-80 was closed this week when a mudslide covered the highway and residents in Sonoma County were forced to stack sandbags because of rising waters along the Russian River.
Other California flooding caused mudslides that destroyed homes in Marin County and Los Gatos, while a 100-foot gap appeared suddenly in Skyland Road in the Santa Cruz mountains.
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[Featured Image by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images]