Weather Threatens Oroville Dam Emergency Efforts

As measures are taken to repair a damaged spillway at the Oroville Dam in Northern California, weather forecasters are calling for rain later this week. Almost 200,000 people were evacuated from their homes below the dam, the largest in the country, on Feb. 12 as erosion of the dam’s emergency spillway threatened to flood the towns below.

While the situation was said to have stabilized on Sunday morning, conditions worsened and evacuation orders were issued. Roads in the area quickly backed up as a result, according to reports.

The dam’s main spillway was damaged after a winter season of record rains and snows following years of drought in the state.

Photo: California Department of Water Resources

California Representative John Garamendi told MSNBC that the evacuation was essential. “Fortunately when they were able to open the main spillway gates. That began to lower the reservoir level, because the water coming into the reservoir was about half of what they were able to expel down the main spillway, so it’s stabilized.”

The next issue, he said, is whether the spillway can be patched up “sufficiently to weather the storms that are clearly ahead of us.” Garamendi added that the months of March and April are the heavy storm season in the state.

Sheriff Kory Honea of Butte County said at a press conference that the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that the dam’s erosion is not advancing as rapidly as they thought. He said a plan is in place to plug the hole in the spillway by dropping large bags of rocks by helicopter. The DWR said that another measure being taken to relieve pressure on the spillway has been to raise the rate of discharge water from 55,000 cubic feet per second to 100,000 cfs, which it said has been working.

Helicopters transport large bags of rocks from the Oroville Dam parking lot, to the erosion site at the Oroville Dam auxiliary spillway in California, to help fight further erosion, February 13, 2017. Oroville is in Butte County. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources

The New York Times reported that Northern California is close to 225% above normal rainfall levels since Oct. 1. According to the Times:

Repeated rounds of rain have pounded the area in recent weeks, rapidly raising the water level at Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California and a linchpin of the state’s water system. On Tuesday, a gaping hole opened in the main spillway that is used to release extra water. Early Saturday, an adjacent emergency spillway was also put into use, the first time water flowed over it since the dam was finished in 1968, department officials said.

State officials have said the 770-foot Oroville Dam itself, the nation’s tallest, is sound.

The problems with Oroville Dam are not a surprise to some. In 2005, during a relicensing process for the dam, three environmental groups warned the DWR of potential dangers with the emergency spillway, which is not a concrete spillway, but a concrete lip with a dirt hillside below. The concern was that the hillside could be easily eroded in the case of an emergency.

The Washington Post reported:

The upgrade would have cost millions of dollars and no one wanted to foot the bill, said Ronald Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, one of the groups that filed the motion.

“When the dam is overfull, water goes over that weir and down the hillside, taking much of the hillside with it,” Stork told The Washington Post. “That causes huge amounts of havoc. There’s roads, there’s transmission lines, power lines that are potentially in the way of that water going down that auxiliary spillway.”

Federal officials, however, determined that nothing was wrong and the emergency spillway, which can handle 350,000 cubic feet of water per second, “would perform as designed” and sediment resulting from erosion would be insignificant, according to a July 2006 memo from John Onderdonk, then a senior civil engineer for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Garamendi said that “What happened with the widening of the sinkhole was the result of someone overlooking the problems, including the fact that there was no concrete apron on the spillway.”

He also noted that while there will most likely be federal dollars to help rebuild the dam, “This is just one really startling, quite tragic and potentially catastrophic example of what’s happened to the infrastructure across America. We’ve seen bridges collapse in Minnesota, we’ve seen them on I-5 in Washington State and now this reservoir, which is the linchpin of California’s water system.”

Flood, Wind Dominant Natural Hazards in 2016

While most natural hazards occurring in the United States last year saw average or below average activity, the exceptions were flood and wind, according to the CoreLogic report Natural Hazard Risk Summary and Analysis, released today.

Severe flood events driven by substantial rainfall were the dominant natural hazards, with Louisiana and North Carolina floods being the major loss contributors. As in 2015, hurricanes and tropical storms in 2016 continued to cause inland flooding through increased and intense rainfall—even when not making landfall, according to the report.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said there were 12 individual weather and climate disaster events in the U.S. with losses exceeding $1 billion in 2016.

According to the report:

  • Based on NOAA and CoreLogic analysis, the overall flood loss in 2016, driven by six, 1,000-year plus rain events, was approximately $17 billion, which is six times greater than the overall flood damage experienced in 2015.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recorded 943 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater in 2016, with more than 60 percent of these earthquakes located in Oklahoma.
  • The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reported a total of 5,415,121 acres burned from 62,864 separate fires in 2016. While the total acres burned in 2016 fell below the 10-year average, significant losses occurred, with thousands of homes in California and Tennessee destroyed by several smaller fires that burned in populated areas.
  • Wind activity in 2016 was slightly above average, due in large part to strong winds brought by Hurricane Matthew.
  • Hail activity in 2016 was near the average, and Texas experienced the worst of this natural hazard.
  • Tornado activity in 2016 was near average compared with previous years.
  • Hurricane Matthew developed late in the year and grew to a Category 5 storm, resulting in substantial damage along the southeastern seaboard.
  • There were below-average levels of tropical cyclone activity in the western North Pacific Basin encompassing East and Southeast Asia in 2016.

However, 2016 became known as the year without a winter. Nine winter storms impacted the U.S. in 2016, the most notable being the late-January winter storm in New York.

“History has continually shown us that it is impossible to determine exactly when or where the next wildfire, flood or earthquake will strike, which is why preparedness, response and post-loss assessment are paramount,” CoreLogic said.

Business Interruption Seen as Top Risk Globally

A survey of more than 1,200 risk managers and corporate insurance experts in over 50 countries identified business interruption as the top concern for 2017. According to the sixth annual Allianz Risk Barometer of top business risks, this is the fifth successive year that business interruption has been seen as the biggest risk.
top-10-risks

“Companies worldwide are bracing for a year of uncertainty,” Chris Fischer Hirs, CEO of AGCS said in a statement. “They are concerned about rather unpredictable changes in the legal, geopolitical and market environment around the world. A range of new risks are emerging beyond the perennial perils of fire and natural catastrophes and require re-thinking of current monitoring and risk management tools.”

While natural disasters and fires are what businesses fear most, non-damage events such as a cyber incident, terrorism or political violence resulting in denial of access are moving higher up on the scale, according to the report. These types of incidents can cause large loss of income to companies, without actual physical loss.

The second concern, market developments, could result from stagnant markets or M&As, or from digitalization and use of new technologies.

Cyberrisk, third on the list of perils, has jumped up from 15th place in just four years. Cyber was identified as the second concern in the United States and Europe.

According to Allianz:

The results indicate that cyber risk occupies a significant portion of a company’s exposure map. The risk now goes far and beyond the issue of privacy and data breaches. A single incident, be it a technical glitch, human error or an attack, can lead to severe business interruption, loss of market share and cause reputational damage. Of the top 10 global risks in the 2017 Allianz Risk Barometer, a cyber incident could be a potential root cause or trigger for 50% of them. In addition, the toughening of data protection regulation regimes around the world is also contributing to this risk being at the forefront of risk managers’ minds, as penalties for non-compliance are increasingly severe.

Fourth on the list, natural catastrophes added up to $150 billion in total economic losses in 2016—with insured losses accounting for $42 billion of those losses—up from $28 billion in 2015, according to the report. Businesses also are more concerned about the impact of climate change and increasing weather volatility year-on-year.

Trump outlook for 2017

“Opportunities and challenges,” says Ludovic Subran, head of Euler Hermes Economic Research and deputy chief economist of Allianz research. “Companies which are domestic, either a regional multinational or national, will benefit. However, the business environment for large multi-national corporations who do have global, strongly regionally diversified business models will be more challenging. Stronger regional interests will make the lives of companies more complicated as there will be increasing protectionist regulation.”

Recap of 2016 Weather Events

The 2016 hurricane season, which ends today, has been the deadliest since 2005 and the most active and costliest since 2012. In all there were 15 named storms and seven hurricanes, three of them major hurricanes. Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5, was responsible for more than 1,600 deaths and insured loss estimates of about $7 billion.

Other major storms that hit the United States in 2016 include Winter Storm Jonas, Louisiana flooding, hailstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. For a recap of 2016 storms check out Interstate’s year-in-review infographic:
yearinreviewinfographic