What role can residents play in preparing San Diego for a wet El Niño winter?

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I’ve been mulling this question for some time. Recently, I wrote a report on the effects of severe El Niño winter storms in San Diego County. Our knowledge of these weather events is limited to a small sample. Still, in prior years, El Niño destruction in California has included damaged homes and buildings, landslides, mudslides, shoreline erosion, oil spills and damage to roads, highways, campgrounds and parks. We have also seen injuries and loss of life; the 1982-83 El Niño winter storms resulted in 481 injuries and 36 deaths statewide, and 17 deaths in 1997-98.

Some county residents appear to be at greater risk of El Niño flooding than others. The Federal Emergency Management Agency identifies areas that have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year as “100-year flood zones.” These zones, which can be found throughout the region, are highly susceptible to flooding during major weather events.

Using GIS software and U.S. Census data, I identified that approximately 54,560 county residents – about 2 percent of the countywide population – live in these flood-prone places. Using additional data sources, I also found that 100-year flood zones are home to 4,798 businesses and 21,706 housing units. While most of these hot spots are found in the city of San Diego, San Marcos, Escondido and Oceanside had some particularly large populated flood zones.

I know many city and county officials have been working overtime to prepare for severe storms, and the Red Cross and others have encouraged residents to put together emergency kits and evacuation plans in the event of an emergency. That’s needed and prudent at this time. Still, I’m interested in finding out how volunteer power and private donations can proactively help city and county agencies reach their maintenance and safety goals now, before the winter storms arrive.

While able-bodied, financially solvent residents are able to get their own homes storm-ready, what about seniors, low-income families and the disabled?

Could volunteer brigades organize and help at-need residents with installing and cleaning rain gutters, or preparing yard drainage? How about cleaning flood channels and riverbanks of debris and invasive plants that block the flow of water?

Imagine city mayors joining with the Board of Supervisors to ask every county resident to give 8-10 hours of volunteer time over the Thanksgiving holiday break to help prepare for what may be a historic flood event this winter. Municipal departments, nonprofits and community groups could partner to identify priority projects that could use more hands, more dollars and more shovels. Who wouldn’t answer that call to action?

Such an effort wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Canyon Crusaders is a group of volunteers, organized and directed by a San Diego city park ranger, and assembles weekly to remove weeds and debris from creek beds and canyons. I Love a Clean San Diego is a nonprofit that organizes clean-up events throughout our region year round. More public-private partnerships can help us prepare for the unknown, and possibly save lives.

In times of crisis, San Diegans of all walks of life come together to help those in need. Rather than wait until after disaster strikes, why not be proactive in asking for helping hands and donations now if they could make a positive impact for prevention?

Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a regional economic think tank. Vasquez’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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