Picture this:

It’s day four of a series of winter storms the likes of which no living person has ever experienced in Southern California. Rainfall totals are approaching 30 inches, it’s high tide and sustained wind speeds are being clocked at 60 mph. Coastal residents are urged to evacuate, but rapidly rising flood waters are making it virtually impossible. Thanks to early fall wildfires, the higher ground is stripped of vegetation and unstable. Residents in Oxnard, Santa Paula and parts of Ventura are flagging down helicopters from their rooftops. Those lucky enough to have boats in their driveways are getting a crash course in emergency rescue procedures.

It’s Monday around 3 p.m. School’s letting out, traffic is becoming congested, people are climbing the midday hump at offices, restaurants, shopping malls, construction sites. A subtle vibration turns to vigorous shaking as Ventura County residents ride out what may be the no longer mythical “big one.” Unreinforced masonry in historic districts quickly crumbles, and unsecured heavy objects are tossed around like beach balls. The audible is almost worse than the visible — glass breaking, car alarms shrieking, people screaming. For 40 terrifying seconds it continues. Residents of Simi Valley, Fillmore, Moorpark and Ojai are closest to the epicenter, but liquefaction causes coastal residents to fare worst.

A tiny ember — light as a feather, hot as the desert — takes flight from a relatively manageable brush fire behind East Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks. Were it not for the havoc it’s about to wreak, it would be a thing of beauty, but aloft on the devil’s wind it’s a declaration of war. Residents in this pricey neighborhood aren’t too concerned; they’ve come to expect wildfires during annual Santa Ana conditions. When it finally descends, it could easily land on wet asphalt; but instead, the chaotic current deposits it on a patch of dry brush just behind someone’s backyard, and within minutes a child’s wooden swing set is in flames. Like some sinister relay, another ember catches the curtain blowing through an open window and one house is lost. Before nightfall, the better part of an entire neighborhood is reduced to chimneys, safes and filthy swimming pools.

These are perhaps dramatic depictions of potential natural disaster scenarios, but they are not outside the realm of possibility — and it’s becoming more evident that as climate change and solar cycles continue to affect weather patterns and seismic activity, there are too many unknowns to rule much out. Ventura County is one of the most disaster-prone counties in California, according to the American Red Cross. The diversity of the terrain here makes us susceptible to wildfires, earthquakes, floods and other natural calamities, yet we continue to populate geographically precarious locations — oceanfront, hillsides, flood plains — and the majority of us are unprepared for any of the potential scenarios that experts warn are inevitable. Are we flirting with disaster?

“We build on the mountains and along the coast because they are beautiful,” says California Lutheran University geology professor William Bilodeau. “But the mountains are there because of earthquakes.” He goes on to remind us that while marine terraces are nice flat areas for home construction, seismic uplift is responsible for their existence. “The flat areas in the Oxnard plain are pretty, but you’re building on a flood plain,” says Bilodeau. “All that sediment was dumped there sometime in the past — that could always happen again.”

Events such as the recent mega-quakes in New Zealand and Japan and the quake-generated tsunamis in Japan and Chile, both of which damaged marinas along the California coast, serve as sobering reminders that we, too, live on shaky ground, and the stress that’s been building along the mighty San Andreas Fault will release. But devastating as a magnitude 8 quake would be to Southern California, Bilodeau says it’s not Ventura County’s greatest threat — a 200-year flood is.

“If the state got 40 inches of rain in five or 10 days, it would knock out bridges and flood highways. It would be a tremendous disaster and it would affect a larger area than a single earthquake,” he says.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) released a report detailing a winter storm scenario in California called ARkStorm. The hypothetical storm, it suggests, would affect the West Coast and be similar to the damaging storms of 1861 and 1862 that left the central valley of California impassable. Such a storm is estimated to produce rainfall in some locations that would exceed levels experienced, on average, once every 500 to 1,000 years.

“An earthquake takes place quickly and it’s over,” says Bilodeau, “We’ve prepared more for those than we have for flooding.”

Terry Schaeffer, who has been a meteorologist for 40 years, remembers the 100-year flood of 1969, which he says destroyed much of Ventura Harbor. “It takes about three good storms 36 hours apart,” he says, to produce historic amounts of rainfall. Coupled with high tides, it’s a recipe for catastrophe.

The ARkStorm scenario revolves around a somewhat newly discovered meteorological phenomenon called atmospheric rivers. These ribbons of moisture in the sky “draw water vapor from the Pacific Ocean near the equator and transport it to the U.S. West Coast with firehose-like ferocity,” according to the U.S.G.S.

In January 2005, an atmospheric river dumped more than 40 inches of rain on Southern California in four days, causing the monster landslide in La Conchita that cost 10 people, including three children, their lives. It is thought that an atmospheric river may have been responsible for the devastating storms of 1861 and 1862, which inundated the Central Valley of California, wiped out at least one So Cal community and caused the state capital to relocate from Sacramento to San Francisco. The U.S.G.S. ARkStorm scenario would “be analogous” to those storms according to its report, “providing a reality check on what is historically possible.”

Nearly every city in Ventura County has at least some portion of land that’s been designated by FEMA as subject to 100-year flooding. Residents in these zones are required to purchase flood insurance, but equally important is the need for residents to prepare with supplies and evacuation plans.

Regardless of the type of disaster, it’s crucial to have food and water on hand, says Ava Avedissian, Ventura County Red Cross Emergency Services manager. “And you need to know how to care for yourself if you or your neighbors have injuries.” There are 55 fire stations countywide and more than 800,000 residents. “That’s about 4,000 homes per station, approximately 16,000 people per station, and you will not see them all immediately after a disaster,” she warns.

While a 100- to 500-year flood is obviously a rare occurrence, as are major earthquakes, Bilodeau says that we directly contribute to flood risk by paving over land. Adding to the dangers we’ve created via urban development is climate change, which is not only increasing the severity of storms, but over time will put more coastal residents at risk. “In the long run, since what we’re doing is channelizing [creating pathways for water where it would otherwise be absorbed into the ground], flood plains are going to be a problem,” he says. “Secondly, over the next 50 years, I think everything along the coast that’s within 10 feet vertical of the ocean, will be impacted. Sea level is going to come up. It will allow deeper water just offshore, which allows larger waves to come in.” He explains that normally, when waves break, much of the energy is expended as it hits the sea floor. But as sea level rises, the larger waves being further from the sea floor lose less energy, so the waves crash on the beach with greater intensity. Along with erosion, “This will make the coastline more dangerous and the flood plains more dangerous where development increases the runoff water so the levees will not be high enough.”

Though a major quake on the San Andreas will likely not affect enough of Ventura County to put it in a league with an ARkStorm in terms of destruction, it is still a threat not to be underestimated. Bilodeau says there are active faults throughout the county, but they are only capable of producing something along the lines of the Northridge quake or maybe a bit larger — a statement that provides little comfort for those who experienced the Northridge quake. The good news is that thrust faults, such as the one responsible for the Northridge quake, are not located in heavily populated parts of the county.

The bad news, however, is that the journal Geology released an unnerving report late last year about new theories regarding a rupture on the San Andreas. The 340-mile fault runs from the Salton Sea to Monterey County. Before the journal’s report, it was thought that only the southern portion was overdue, but scientists are beginning to believe it’s possible for the entire fault to basically unzip in one continuous event. U.S.G.S seismologist Lucy Jones told the L.A. Times that “the biggest implication of [the report] is that it increases the likelihood that when we do have a big earthquake, it will grow into the ‘wall-to-wall’ rupture.” This could produce an 8.1 temblor that would last much longer and would cover a wider swath than a quake emanating from one portion of the fault.

Damage would, of course, be worse closest to the fault line, but also in liquefaction zones. Liquefaction occurs when solid land essentially liquefies during shaking to create extremely unstable ground. Structural damage in liquefaction zones is greater than on more solid, rocky earth. Coastal Ventura, southern and eastern parts of Camarillo, western Simi Valley and pockets of Thousand Oaks are subject to liquefaction. Virtually all of Oxnard/Port Hueneme is a liquefaction zone.

Bilodeau remembers a neighborhood in Thousand Oaks that exhibited a curious pattern of damage caused by a man-made liquefaction condition. “The homes on one side of the street toward the hillside had no damage. On the other side, where they had 20 feet of fill, all the chimneys had fallen down and there was all kinds of damage to those homes right across the street from homes that had none,” he said.

Even if damage in Ventura County was minimal compared to other parts of the state, it’s likely that basic services would be compromised — adequate preparation would still be crucial.

Wildfires are the most common calamity in Southern California, but loss of life and property can be mitigated through adherence to building codes, brush clearance around property lines and swift evacuation. Every city in the county except Oxnard/Port Hueneme is at risk for wildfires, and Avedissian says significant portions of the county’s hillsides haven’t burned in a few decades, meaning there’s a whole lot of fuel waiting to ignite. Often, what’s worse than the fires themselves are the resulting landslides the following winter. Should an atmospheric river develop over the Ojai Valley following a bad fire season, residents should be prepared for the worst.

One of the least recognized and rarest natural disasters possible in Ventura County is the tsunami. But last week, and for the second time in barely more than a year, coastal residents found themselves facing a tsunami warning. While the event may have appeared less than dramatic, the waves generated by the Japan quake caused damage in excess of $50 million to the state of California. In Santa Barbara, a commercial fishing barge was swept away and a 200-ton crane barge became unmoored. In Ventura, a sailing dock was damaged and a boat was lost at sea.

A massive quake centered in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1812 produced a tsunami that carried a ship inland a half mile into downtown Santa Barbara and caused damage in Ventura. Bilodeau confirmed that the Channel Islands do provide some protection for coastal Ventura County from tsunamis barreling across the Pacific, but if an underwater fault between here and the islands were to rupture and cause the sea floor to rise or fall, a dangerous tsunami would result. Fortunately, there are very few faults here capable of this, although the continental slope offshore of Santa Barbara shows landslide scars, which means a tsunami there is possible and water could reach as far as two miles inland. Also, a quake north of us, in Alaska for instance (which has a history of mega-quakes), could generate tsunami waves that would travel right between the coast and the islands. If a significant quake occurs offshore, coastal residents should immediately seek higher ground as emergency officials may not have time to issue a tsunami warning.  

Living on planet earth these days is risky business, especially on the unpredictable West Coast, but knowing the risks and planning for the worst is our best defense. The Red Cross, along with all emergency personnel, have imagined and made a response plan for virtually every potential disaster scenario, but individuals need to ready themselves as well. 

Sheriff’s Department disaster zone maps: www.vcsd.org/sub-office-er.php.
U.S.G.S.: www.usgs.gov
Red Cross: www.arcventura.org.
FEMA:  www.fema.gov/areyouready or www.ready.gov
Kits: www.safetycentral.com



Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

The American Red Cross and the county’s first responders have plans in place for every potential disaster scenario. Following a disaster, survivors can expect a safe place to stay, a bed, meals, health and mental health services, showers and bathrooms. Nonprofits are also usually on hand to help people pick up the pieces and plan their recovery. But, says Ava Avedissian, Ventura County Red Cross Emergency Services manager, one of the biggest public misconceptions is that somebody else will take care of them. “People never think it will happen to them until it does. People don’t assume these disasters can and will happen here, they don’t take it seriously.” But also keep in mind, she goes on to say, that you can never be fully prepared. “The disaster will happen a little different than what you prepare for. You can only do your best to have the resources necessary.”

Have a plan

Know your escape routes from home and workplace. Have a meeting place for loved ones if communication fails. Hold practice drills annually.

Familiarize yourself with the terrain near your home, and determine hazards relating to debris flow, landslides, unreinforced masonry. Know the quickest way to get to higher ground.

Know your safe spot in a quake. (Under a piece of furniture or against an interior wall away from windows, bookcases or tall furniture that could fall on you.)

Keep cars full of fuel. (Without electricity, it won’t be possible to fill up at a gas station.)

Keep a working flashlight and sturdy shoes and a whistle at your bedside and in your car.

Three-day survival supplies

• Cash
• First-aid kit
• Medications and prescription eyeglasses
• Radio
• Water: ideally 1 gallon per person per day
• Food: canned and dried food that doesn’t require water for cooking, pet food and infant formula, if applicable
• Can opener, camping stove or barbecue and cooking pots/utensils
• Waterproof matches and lighters, dust masks
• Batteries, extra cell-phone battery and extra flashlights
• Weatherproof clothing, blankets, sleeping bags
• Travel-size toiletries, baby wipes, diapers if applicable
• Comfort items and toys for children