Tip Sheets

Atmospheric rivers threaten neglected infrastructure, marginalized communities

Media Contact

Jeff Tyson

The U.S. West Coast is bracing for another atmospheric river and potentially a series of storms that could inundate communities.

Alistair Hayden

Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Public & Ecosystem Health

Alistair Hayden, a Cornell University professor of practice in public and ecosystem health and a former division chief at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, says marginalized communities with lagging infrastructure — and sometimes language barriers — remain particularly at-risk.

Hayden says:

“Disasters are not natural — weather events become disasters when our physical and social infrastructure are insufficient. Communities most harmed by disasters are often those who have been marginalized in other ways. Last year, the farmworker community of Pajaro, California experienced major flooding after levees failed following historic disinvestment in their maintenance. Some residents were hindered in evacuating or getting aid because they spoke languages other than English or Spanish.

“Atmospheric rivers have caused significant flooding throughout California history, including the Great Flood of 1862 that reportedly made California’s Central Valley an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide, and last year’s flooding that caused an estimated $4.6 billion of damage and resurrected Tulare Lake.

“Atmospheric rivers are especially dangerous paired with other events—rainfall on snow or multiple atmospheric rivers in a row can cause major flooding, and rainfall on recent wildfire-burn areas can cause dangerous debris flows.

“A series of atmospheric rivers like the one that caused that the Great Flood of 1862 will happen again one day and is known as ‘The Other Big One’ because it would be as disastrous as the major earthquake known as ‘The Big One’. Recent research indicates climate change makes ‘The Other Big One’ more likely, so lessons learned from this year’s atmospheric rivers are important for future preparedness, including how we ensure disaster aid benefits communities who need it most.”

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