Commentary: Flood Anniversary Highlights Yuba City Risk

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(Yuba City, CA)
Thursday, December 22, 2005

Lyra Halprin is a writer who lives in Davis.

This week I took a walk with my daughter on the levee near Yuba City at Shanghai Bend. Much of the placid water is covered with Canada geese, moving faster at the rapids that rumble downriver. I told my daughter about how 50 years ago, when I was four, I walked a saturated predecessor of this levee with my father and grandparents the afternoon before a massive flood burst through the banks here. By that time, we were safely in sleeping bags at a Sutter County church. It was Christmas Eve. 

I told her how my father and grandparents had spent hours moving furniture to the second floor of the farm house only to return to find the house and our pear orchard washed away.  

That’s why I worry when I see the more than 500 homes built on streets like Rapid Water Way, a block from the rebuilt levee. But the residents are younger, and most don’t remember the flood or think about it. Tammy Engrahm is getting ready for work as a nurse. As the mother of three living a Frisbee’s throw from the levee, floods are not her major concern.  

“My children playing in the water scares me more than the possibility of a flood.”
Down the street Vanessa Dickson operates “Nessa’s Kiddy Corner” child care for six children. She doesn't have flood insurance.

"They didn't require any flood insurance for us here. I don't know why, but they said we weren't in a flood zone. They didn't require it for us when we bought our house."
Overall, I encounter residents who have little urgency about the possibility of a devastating flood. I look to an expert to find out how much danger there really is. Bill Hampton is the general manager of Levee District One. His small office is covered in maps of the floods of ’55, ’86 and ’97. For 34 years Hampton has made it his business to know where every weakness is. "You're going to get wet.  I don't care where you live in this 'Yuba City Bowl,' you're going to get wet if a levee breaks." 

So what are the chances of a levee break in the next ten years?

"I won't answer that. I would hope -- and we're ging to do everything under our power -- to stop anything like that, but I don't know."

 His words are not totally reassuring, especially when I read in the newspaper that other levee districts in the area are in the red. So this month, as I recall the flood that changed my family forever and contributed to my father’s death at the age I am now, I hope young home owners notice how the photos of previous floods look a lot like the recent devastation of New Orleans.Take it from someone who had her one and only sleepover in a church 50 years ago on Christmas Eve: There’s a reason river valleys have fertile soil—the waters periodically overflow the banks. Nourish the farmland for what it is—a place to grow the finest crops in the world, not the answer to housing needs.