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San Franciscans in the Dark About Flood Hazards

By Nina Li, New America Media

SAN FRANCISCO — A citywide effort is tackling a problem that few residents think about: rising seas and coastal erosion.

Ocean Beach, on the western edge of the city, has been offering San Franciscans a place to enjoy nature and water activities, but the shoreline is facing greater erosion due to sea level rise that threatens public safety and vital infrastructure, such as roads and a water treatment plant.

Great Highway, Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Credit: Daniel Hoherd/flickr

In 2009 and 2010, storms brought high winds and crashing waves that caused major erosion and deterioration of the southbound section of the Great Highway that connects the northwestern and southwestern parts of the city. The road was closed for nearly a year, while the city installed a 425-feet stone revetment — a sloping structure to buffer against waves. 

In order to protect the beach, several government departments, including the California State Coastal Conservancy, launched the "Ocean Beach Master Plan," a comprehensive strategy to address sea level rise, protect infrastructure, restore coastal ecosystems and improve public access. Rather than building bigger levees or seawalls, the plan calls for a planned retreat from the water. It offers a vision for how the to adapt to sea level rise in this part of the city, but many of the area’s residents are in the dark about the changes.

Under the plan, the Great Highway would be re-routed and its width reduced.

Benjamin Grant, program manager of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), said “reducing the size of the road would give the beach more space to erode naturally” and “the closure area would be rebuilt into an artificial beach.”

San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar, who was part of the plan’s advisory committee, says he has been working with the city and public to raise awareness of sea level rise threats. 

“The Ocean Beach Master Plan is important to prevent the Pacific Coast from sea level rise and erosion,” he said. “The plan also helps to protect the overall ecological environment and to make residents in the Sunset and Richmond districts safe. 

The Impact of Sea Rise in San Francisco

Global warming is driving the rapid melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice shelves, and causing oceans to rise. In California, the sea level is expected to rise by 16 inches by mid-century and 55 inches by the end of the century. Sea level rise, coupled with high tide and storm surges, increase the risk of floods and cause them to be more frequent and severe, according to new research released this week by Climate Central, a research and journalism organization. 

The analysis found that the cumulative risk of at least one flood exceeding three feet — historically, record floods in the area have reached this level — increased from 27 percent in 2030 to 87 percent by midcentury. Climate Central also found that more than 700 housing units and more than $1 billion in property are located below the three feet water line.

Grant, the program manager with SPUR, said the upper part of the Great Highway is frequently closed because sand dunes often spill onto the road. Part of the plan is to plant more vegetation along the shoreline to further buffer against rising seas and reduce erosion.

Mrs. Wu, who has lived on 18 Street in the Sunset District, which borders Ocean Beach, for over 15 years, says she believes sea level rise will not affect residents in the short term. Wu says she’s more concerned about the cost and length of construction time for the Great Highway.

“The budget to renovate the highway is all from taxpayers,” she said in Chinese. “I hope the government could put every cent in the right place as well as shorten the duration of the construction.”

Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Credit: sarahluv/flickr

San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang has organized community meetings about the Ocean Beach Master Plan.

“Sea level rise could bring other problems such as flood and erosion, and it’s better to take preventive action.” she said.

Supervisor Mar says that funding remains a hurdle, and he is looking for ways to raise revenue.

Mar’s other concern is the information gap about sea level rise.

“The public has not fully recognized how serious sea level rise problems could be,” he said. “Global warming and increasing frequency of storms have made sea level rise and coastal erosion worse these years.”

"Flood Hazard a Potential Bomb"

The area near Ocean Beach is designated a “special flood hazard area,” according to city documents. 

Mar says there are low-income families living near Ocean Beach, as well as hundreds of small businesses, that could be at risk of a flood.

“If a storm causes flooding in the Sunset District, those vulnerable families will become even more vulnerable,” he said.

Mar says “the flood hazard is like a potential bomb,” and urged residents to buy flood insurance if they are able to afford it.  Homeowners who live in a federally-designated (FEMA) floodplain and have a federally-backed mortgage are required to buy flood insurance. 

Small business owners in the Sunset District are worried about rising sea levels, but think it will not threaten people’s lives immediately. 

Qingho Lee, the owner of Kingdom Of Dumpling, says he’s observed changing weather patterns, and he’s concerned about global warming. As a small business owner, Lee says he's concerned about possible damage to his business from floods and storms, but “ I won’t experience it in the next few years, since sea level rise is a gradual process.” 

Lee, who doesn’t have flood insurance, said his top priorities as a restaurant owner are being profitable, paying rent on time, and attracting more customers.

“The unpredictable disaster like storm and flood is a secondary [concern],” he said. 

Nina Li is a reporter with Sing Tao Daily.

This story is part of a New America Media-led collaborative reporting project ("Surging Seas Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon?") on the local impacts of sea level rise involving six Bay Area ethnic and community media reporters. The project was conducted in partnership with Climate Central, Stamen Design and Investigative Reporters and Editors, and funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Mize Family Foundation, and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

Reprinted with permission from New America Media