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Oakland's Poorest Neighborhoods Will Be The Most Susceptible to Flooding Due To Climate Change And Sea-Level Rise

Some neighborhood pockets might become unlivable by the century’s end.

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Imagine the flooded streets and extreme storms of this past winter — and then flash-forward 50 more years.

If you live in West Oakland, especially in the community of Dogtown, a storm could flood your home, your neighbors’ houses, that new favorite soul-food spot, and the community urban farm with several feet of water. Mandela Parkway, as it cuts through Memorial Park and curves toward the 580, could also be submerged. And, 100 years from today, parts of West Oakland — which some new residents don’t realize was once marsh and wetlands — could be under water.

Pockets of East Oakland are positioned to experience a similar fate, perhaps worse, especially in the Havenscourt neighborhood, south of Eastmont along 66th Avenue, and large swaths near Interstate 880, what with several of its support columns rooted in backwater sloughs. Storm runoff from the hills could compound flooding in the flatlands. Entire blocks could become unlivable.

Indeed, the floods, rains, and power outages of winter 2017 were just a taste of what the East Bay can expect in the coming decades, as climate change causes more severe, and more frequent, extreme weather. Rising sea levels will magnify the damage. Water will be flooding into our communities from both sides. The poorest communities will suffer the most.

Brian Beveridge is a co-director with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, an environmental-justice group. And his diagnosis for the East Bay’s low-income and minority neighborhoods is grim: “This is the biggest change that will take place in the history of modern society — and we don’t know what to do about it.”

And there’s urgency. Last Wednesday, a new report released by the state reinforced dire forecasts: a 67 percent chance that sea levels in the Bay will rise by 3.4 feet in the next 80 years — and a bleak outlook that they could go up by 10 feet, which would ravage neighborhoods — again, in predominately low-income communities.

What does that magnitude of sea rise and flooding look like, in terms of displacement and damage? Well, a 2012 report from the Pacific Institute assessed the East Bay’s vulnerability, from Emeryville to Union City, and it calculated that the effects of a sea-level rise of just sixteen inches, plus a superstorm not unlike the rains we experienced this winter, would flood some 2,000 homes in Oakland and displace 30,000 workers. Some areas could be permanently under water by 2100.

There are passionate scientist, officials, public employees, and activists on the case. But, in many regards, it’s difficult to pinpoint where to begin. Do communities start by re-imagining their shorelines, including the possibility of sea walls and wetland cultivation? Or should they focus on increasing greenery in the hills, so that landscape acts as a sponge to soak up run-off? Or fixing the region’s antiquated sewer systems, to prevent catastrophic failure? Might the city’s focus be funding, so as to pay for these many costly projects? Or should they slow down and reach out to engage more community voices, something residents say isn’t happening nearly enough now?

Whatever the approach, there’s no changing the future: The water is coming.

Flooding in the Flatlands

Daniel Hamilton is the City of Oakland’s sustainability manager. He explained to the Express how the largest floods in the region, often caused by a king tide and a storm at once, are already even bigger today than they were 20 years ago. In the future, he said we can expect parts of Oakland to be “flooded with increasing frequency from year to year, until the quality of life can’t be maintained.”

Local, regional, and state agencies, led by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, have been working for years to develop projections about how sea-level rise will affect the Bay Area and figure out strategies for adaptation. Oakland is ahead of most of its neighbors — in January, the city actually released a Sea Level Rise Road Map, with detailed information about likely effects, and plans for developing programs.

But even Hamilton conceded that “the city as a whole does not yet have a comprehensive plan for sea level rise.”

So far, the threat of sea-level rise has been met with a flood of studies and reports about how high the water will likely go up, and when — something no one can predict with certainty. But most agree that, before the middle of the century, it’s likely that sea-level rise, plus worsening storms, will create daunting danger for the East Bay.

It’s not just homes that are at risk. Workplaces, too, would be inundated, affecting almost 30,000 Oakland employees. This scenario would also impact schools, hospitals, and other community facilities, as well as a large number of sites containing toxic contaminants, which could then be released into the floodwater.

And, of course, infrastructure is at risk, including the Oakland International Airport, many city streets, such as 98th Avenue and the 880; rail lines including BART and Amtrak; the base of the Bay Bridge; and networks of equipment that run underground, from electrical connections to fuel pipes.

One thing researchers agree on: flooding, like so much else, will hit hardest in the neighborhoods where people have the least resources. Lindy Lowe, director of the Adapting to Rising Tides program, emphasized that West Oakland in general is “quite low, with lots of low-lying disconnected areas — water finds a way to get to them, or they fill up during rain.”

East Oakland, Lowe said, is even more at risk, because of the “under-capacity” tidal creeks and channels that run through it.

If a big storm coincides with high tides, those channels could flood several neighborhoods.

Although some upper-income people live next to East Bay shores, neighborhoods vulnerable to flooding are home to a disproportionately high number of people with the least resources for withstanding the storms, according to the Pacific Institute’s 2012 vulnerability study. Many earn lower incomes, lack cars, rent rather than own, have limited English skills, live in single-parent families, or have other “vulnerability factors.”

After a big flood and storm combo, Lowe said, “If you’re a renter, you’ve probably lost your housing, or if you own your house you may not be able to fix it up. When people get put out of their homes, their neighborhood starts to fail.”

In addition, Beveridge said low-income neighborhoods are less likely to find funding for recovery. “People within walking distance of the West Oakland BART station have an average income of $35,000. In Jack London Square, the average income is $147,000. When both flood, who’s going to get the money to rebuild?” he asked.

He pointed out that, even today in New Orleans “parts of the Ninth Ward look the same as they did right after Hurricane Katrina.”

Margaret Gordon, also a co-director the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, explained how the community is vulnerable because of years of poverty and neglect. “We have the oldest infrastructure and plumbing, old overhead wiring, trees not being taken care of, problems with dumping,” she rattled-off the myriad issues.

This is not to mention toxic contamination. Areas likely to be flooded by mid-century — with high percentages of low-income residents — contain hundreds of contaminated sites with leaking underground storage tanks, landfills, and a variety of businesses that work with toxic materials. These substances could wash into floodwater.

The flooding will come partly from high tides and “storm surges” washing Bay water up onto land. But will also come from the other direction.
A severe storm — think Katrina, Sandy, or worse — could overwhelm the stormwater system, releasing water into streets and homes. “Some of the stormwater pipes are 80 years old,” explained Lesley Estes, the City of Oakland’s watershed manager. “Some are too small. They fail in different ways.”

And the water that floods into flatlands neighborhoods could also include sewage. Already, in severe storms, toilets back up. “In neighborhoods like West Oakland, the plumbing and sewer systems are very old, decrepit” said Beveridge. During extreme weather, water can seep through cracks and leaks in the old pipes and “inundate the system,” explained Jimmy Mach, the engineer in charge of Oakland’s sewer system. In that case, sewer pipes can overflow with “untreated wastewater,” spilling into our yards.

Sea Walls, Sponges, Solutions

Some community organizations — members of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition — have been working for years to help their neighborhoods prepare for sea level rise and to push the city to prioritize the needs of low-income neighborhoods. Beveridge pointed out that “big public institutions,” like the port and airport, have been planning ways to protect themselves. But plans for protecting residents of low-lying neighborhoods lag far behind.

“There isn’t a hint of a suggestion where the money to protect residential neighborhoods would come from,” Beveridge said.

The port and airport have dedicated sources of funding. “Protecting neighborhoods is a lot more complicated,” Lowe explained. She said “re-imagining the shoreline” is part of the solution, but asked, rhetorically, “Who’s responsible for the shoreline?”

No one yet has a plan for protecting low-lying neighborhoods from sea level rise. “We need to look at the landscape of the shoreline and figure out what to do,” Lowe argued. Redesigning the shoreline could include “hard and soft solutions — from sea walls to wetlands and other natural barriers.”

Beveridge suggested that sea walls or levees might be needed to protect neighborhoods. In new developments, he said, builders can bring in rocks and dirt to raise the level of the land.

But sea walls have limitations, noted the city’s Hamilton. “Even if we had a sea wall on the whole Oakland shore,” he said, “unless Emeryville and San Leandro did it, too, the water would just come around the ends.

That’s one example of why real solutions need to happen on a regional level. In addition to helping cities and counties develop their own sea level rise plans, BCDC is leading efforts to coordinate planning, bringing together cities, counties, and the many public agencies that will have to be involved — East Bay MUD, CalTrans, The East Bay Municipal Park District, and more. In addition, an international design competition, Regional By Design, will reward planners and designers who come up with creative, Bay Area-wide plans for adapting to sea level rise.

Meanwhile Oakland is working on strategies of its own. “The most impactful way to protect West Oakland [and East Oakland] from flooding,” Hamilton said, “is with projects in the hills.” Back when the hills were covered with redwoods, forests absorbed storm water. With buildings and roads now covering the hills, water runs off them, overburdening both the creeks and stormwater systems.

The city has been working for years on projects to “keep the water uphill,” the city’s Estes said. The main solution, she said, is planting trees, grass, and other plants — “green infrastructure” whose roots absorb water “like a sponge.”
Despite many studies and some progress on projects designed to protect low-lying neighborhoods from sea level rise, Hamilton did say that there’s still not enough science to know what to prioritize. “Should we be worried about cleaning up toxic sites or keeping the water out? Should we focus first on West Oakland, because it has more people, or East Oakland because it’s more at risk?”

Community organizations representing low-lying neighborhoods insist that they should have a say in setting those priorities. In assessing risks, Beveridge said, “residents are the real experts on where neighborhoods flood, where toilets back up.” And “they have a right to be involved when priorities are decided, because there isn’t enough money for everything.”

Oakland officials say they want more community input. “But they haven’t done it,” argued Corrine Van Hook, co-director of the nonprofit Rooted in Resilience and a leader of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition. She did admit that she’s lately seeing more outreach and progress.

The Resilient Oakland Initiative, as Hamilton pointed out, is helping to achieve another goal: collaboration among city departments and other public agencies. That’s necessary, because the problems presented by climate change — including sea-level rise — require a new level of coordinated action.

One example, he said, is the problem posed by Damon Slough near the Coliseum. “Pretty much everything south of [Highway] 24 drains into it,” he explained. And even a modest amount of sea-level rise will cause it to back up, with water overflowing into nearby neighborhoods.

A solution would have to involve more than a half-dozen public agencies who have some kind of jurisdiction. “Our systems weren’t designed to work for something like this,” Hamilton said.

For example, Interstate 880 support columns are in Damon Slough, Hamilton said. “To widen Damon Slough, we would have to raise 880. But the current Caltrans threshold for raising a roadway is ‘regular flooding of the roadway.’”

Of course, much more money will be needed to actually do the work of protecting the East Bay’s poorest neighborhoods from sea level rise — and even to figure out what to do. Among the goals listed in Oakland’s Sea Level Rise Road Map is to “identify funding” to study “vulnerabilities and risks” and to “develop an adaptation strategy.”

“Lack of funding is going to be a huge problem,” Hamilton acknowledged. But he’s optimistic that both public and private funds would be forthcoming “if we could say, ‘We can protect Oakland if we just do this.’”

Increased public awareness also is crucial. This Saturday, on Earth Day, for instance, a “March for Science” will take place on the East Bay’s shoreline, one of 500 events worldwide. At 10 a.m. at the Hayward Shoreline Interpretive Center, activists will walk for 1.5 miles along the Bay Trail — which will probably be under water due to sea-level rise in the next three decades.

Compared to problems people struggle with every day — rent, paychecks, the threat of deportation — the dangers posed by sea-level rise are not immediate. “But there’s a sense of urgency in addressing them,” said Hamilton. “Because we don’t know how long the solution is going to take.”  

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