Will global warming leave LA’s poor under water?

New research could help the city anticipate the impact of rising sea levels on its beaches and neighborhoods

Los Angeles' wealthy Venice neighborhood could face more flooding as a result of climate change. Its residents have more means to plan for the consequences of global warming, though, than poorer residents near the Port of Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Madeline Ostrander

LOS ANGELES — A contractor laughed when Robin Rudisill asked, more than five years ago, if she should consider the impact of rising sea levels in her plans for remodeling her taupe-colored three-story house here on the oceanfront walk of Venice Beach. “I was serious,” she said.

Rudisill had moved into the house with her mother, grandmother and daughter a few years after leaving her job as a top financial executive at Bank of America. “I have a lot of people to take care of. I’ve got to figure out how long this place will last,” she said. “He thought that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard.”

The science has since proved her point. Multiple studies predict that as global warming melts ice caps and ocean waters expand, surging seawater could flood the famed beach and swamp Rudisill’s neighborhood by the end of the century. But the predictions haven’t been detailed enough to inform homeowners like her how to protect beach property, let alone help city officials anticipate the impact of higher water, bigger waves and fiercer storms on the string of neighborhoods, roads and power and wastewater plants along the coast.

But now scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are developing more intricate “beach scale” models of sea-level rise along the length of the California coast. Los Angeles is one of many cities around the country that are beginning to plan for the inevitable.

The city commissioned a 270-page study — released in January by the University of Southern California Sea Grant Program — that maps out L.A.’s oceanfront assets and makes the most detailed assessment yet of what areas are at risk when sea-level rise combines with storm surges and high tides. In this report, the core of Venice — its canals and bustling streets of boutiques and restaurants — appears as a splotch of lavender on a map, meaning it will likely experience flooding by 2100 when about 5 feet of sea-level rise combines with a hefty rainstorm. So will other spots along the coast, and many parts of L.A.’s iconic golden beaches could erode.

The research will allow Los Angeles to begin updating its emergency response plans and weighing its options for flood control. In the years to come, will it need to “floodproof” wastewater pumps and drinking water pipes, reroute storm drains or wall off the coastal highway? Should it bulk up miles of beaches with imported sand and fill to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourist revenue? Where is it possible to put up barriers against the sea and elevate buildings to protect parks and properties? And who will need to simply move?

The report also spells out one of the city’s toughest challenges: As it plans for climate change, Los Angeles must balance the needs of its diverse population and come to terms with its yawning social and economic inequality, among the worst of any major U.S. city. In some communities near the Port of Los Angeles, the average family earns only $13,000 annually. On the other end of the city, the houses that line Venice’s canals (including properties that have been home to celebrities like Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons”) stand about a mile from a spot where homeless people frequently camp at night.

Research says people of less means — and those who are more transient or have less education — are less able to prepare for and rebound from natural disasters. According to some estimates, fully a quarter of Los Angeles County lives in poverty. Climate change could make life worse for people who already have it rough

Vulnerable communities don’t have the resources to rebuild, to repair, to evacuate. We really need to help prepare those communities, both nationally and, certainly, here in L.A.

Matt Petersen

Los Angeles’ chief sustainability officer

Los Angeles officials say they want to prioritize the needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents, shake the city’s longstanding stereotype as a haphazardly planned and sprawling metropolis and emerge as a leader in adapting to climate change. In addition to collaborating with Sea Grant, the city has helped support a group of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who are developing a series of hyperlocal models predicting other consequences of climate change on Los Angeles neighborhoods, like changes in temperature. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who took office last June, has joined President Barack Obama’s task force on climate change preparedness, a group of local and state policymakers who are collaborating on responses to drought, wildfires and other challenges.

“Vulnerable communities don't have the resources to rebuild, to repair, to evacuate,” said Matt Petersen, L.A.’s chief sustainability officer, who previously ran an organization that aided hurricane recovery in New Orleans. “We really need to help prepare those communities, both nationally and, certainly, here in L.A.”

Rudisill said steps to address sea-level rise will be a tough sell in Venice. Nobody denies that the neighborhood is already flood-prone; in a heavy storm, shin-deep water puddles into some of the side streets near Rudisill’s house.

But any conversation about property and planning here can raise hackles. Venice also lies in a “tsunami hazard zone” — in the path of destructive high waves produced if earthquakes strike the coast. When Rudisill and a neighbor helped to persuade the city to erect signs in 2009 to mark tsunami evacuation routes, “some people got really upset that (it) was going to increase their insurance … and impact values of real estate,” she said. New discussions about flood preparedness as it relates to sea-level rise could be just as contentious.

Moreover, some locals are already leery of local government agencies. Dede Audet, a community activist who has lived for decades in Venice, can remember multiple floods that have streamed down local streets. Her squat two-bedroom house is about a mile from a set of tide gates, first constructed in the 1930s, that control the water level in the canals. “The city of Los Angeles has not done a good job of looking after our canals area,” she said. “If those tidal gates go, it won't be just the canals. What are they going to do when we have a high, high tide and a rainstorm? We'll all be swimming.”

Among the most vulnerable will be Venice’s homeless population, who already have few options when it storms. “There really isn't anywhere to go,” said Antonio Frazier, who was homeless for three years in Venice and now lives in Sun Valley. “When it's raining, we would go into someone's carport or find an apartment where (the roof) would overhang.” If it floods, he said, “there are no facilities opening up for anyone to go into. You've just got to get to high ground.” But attempts to expand homeless services in Venice can also become a hot-button topic: A number of local residents turned out at a January community meeting to air both supportive and rancorous comments on a decision about where to locate a storage container in which homeless people could keep their belongings.

Against the rising sea we will not win in the long term. We will lose money. We will lose ecosystems. We will lose houses. So how do we deal with that loss?

Susanne Moser

Social scientist and consultant

Broad Beach
Madeline Ostrander

Some citizens on the coast are more equipped to fight for their interests (and their beaches) than others. Affluent homeowners (including the likes of Steven Spielberg and Julia Roberts) on the now-infamous mile-long Broad Beach in Malibu, west of Los Angeles, have spent millions building a rock wall to shield their luxury houses from the encroaching ocean. But whenever water smacks against a wall, the force of the waves reflects back onto the beach, eroding sand around and near the wall. The sand at Broad Beach has subsequently washed away, and the residents have battled for permission to import new sand from elsewhere. The situation has provoked ire and mockery from agencies, environmental groups and local government officials. Broad Beach has become a parable of shortsightedness, and some experts believe the residents there will ultimately need to abandon or move their homes as the water rises — a strategy euphemistically known as “managed retreat.”

“Against the rising sea we will not win in the long term. We will lose money. We will lose ecosystems. We will lose houses. So how do we deal with that loss?” said social scientist Susanne Moser, who specializes in helping communities make decisions about environmental issues. “I think the key … is to find what it is that the community together wants and to foster a really effective dialogue to deal with these difficult choices.”

Many in Los Angeles want to avoid the kinds of lopsided decisions that were made in Malibu. The city of Los Angeles and Sea Grant hired Moser and researcher Julia Ekstrom to do what’s called a “social vulnerability assessment” — identifying the places where people are the least equipped to adapt and cope with changes and emergencies. For example, they mapped the sections of the city with a higher number of renters, households headed by women (including single moms), people with lower incomes and those with limited English-language skills. Along the coast and in the inner city are pockets where people already live in what looks like a constant crisis of poverty and aren’t ready to cope with an environmental disaster. Even in places that are not as desperate, people may not have adequate insurance and will never have the means to floodproof their homes or recoup losses from property damage. 

It’s going to cost a fortune, and we don’t want to make bad decisions.

Beth Jines

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

Some experts and environmental advocates in Los Angeles, meanwhile, feel that the city’s first stab at predicting the damage is too conservative. The models Sea Grant used in this newest assessment extrapolate outward from a modest El Niño storm from January 2010, an event with a 1-in-10 likelihood of occurring every year. A major disaster — say, when a once-in-a-century storm meets higher sea levels caused by climate change — is the subject of the next set of research and reports by Sea Grant and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Even now, parts of Los Angeles are unprepared for a sizable downpour. The 2010 storm wasn’t particularly remarkable. But when the rains struck the low-lying downtown of the San Pedro neighborhood, they overwhelmed the storm drains. The waters rose several feet above the pavement, forming a strong current. City police officers had to pull several people out of a submerged corner store and from apartments, said Sgt. Jeff Hamilton, now retired: “I was keeping my head above water, trying to breathe with these people on my back, trying to get them out of this flood zone.”

On nearby blocks, people tried to wait out the flooding. Some of them, especially undocumented immigrants, were afraid to accept help from anyone they didn’t know. “They were using their clothes to absorb the water,” recalled Gloria Lockhart, who ran a nearby community center at the time. People took shelter in its gymnasium.

Sea-level rise could make problems like this worse. The drainage system is already linked to the ocean: Small white markers near the downtown San Pedro drains, each painted with a blue dolphin, read, “No Dumping: Drains to Ocean.” If higher ocean waters back up into the drains where they discharge, they have less capacity to handle stormwater. The Bureau of Sanitation has since re-engineered the drains in the area that flooded, according to Environmental Supervisor Jim Marchese, but the Sea Grant report says the San Pedro storm-drain network is vulnerable.

Lonna Calhoun, an emergency manager in San Pedro, said there simply hasn’t been enough money or effort invested in emergency planning at a community level. “Very little is coming from any of our government agencies as far as working on community emergency preparedness,” she said. “And there really is not a cohesive plan within this community.”                         

In an era of budget constraints, it will be tough for the city to finance solutions to sea-level rise. The Rockefeller Foundation has named Los Angeles as one of its “100 Resilient Cities,” making it part of a program that offers cities around the world money to hire a “chief resilience officer,” who can help plan for emergencies. Beth Jines, director of strategic initiatives for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said the city is also redrawing emergency hazard maps to reflect climate change risks, such as from sea-level rise and heat waves — with the hope of getting additional federal funding.

“For governments like ours, if you're going to do major infrastructure, it's a 20- to 30-year process, by the time you get approval (and) you get the money together,” said Jines. “That’s why we’re starting this work now. It’s going to cost a fortune, and we don’t want to make bad decisions.”

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