EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Thirty-year-old Gustavo Leal remembers the floodwaters reaching the doorstep of his family home in East Palo Alto. “It was bad enough that you couldn’t get out of your driveway,” he said.
Next time the floodwaters could swamp the entire house. That’s the findings of a new analysis from New America Media and Climate Central, a research and journalism organization.
The analysis found statewide at least 145,000 people could be under water in the next 30 years. Northern California residents, many from low-income and minority communities, will bear the brunt of sea level rise.
San Mateo County will be the hardest hit. Leal’s hometown of East Palo Alto could be the most vulnerable.
In February 1998, an El Niño storm brought high-speed winds combined with abnormally high sea levels that wreaked havoc in the Bay Area. El Niño is an abnormal weather pattern that brings severe storms to the western Pacific every few years.
As a result of the heavy rains, many low-lying areas, including East Palo Alto, were swamped. Records of tidal gauges in the area show that waters reached two and a half feet above high tide during that El Niño storm, which damaged about 1,700 properties in East Palo Alto and neighboring cities.
Record floods like the one Leal experienced will become more frequent and severe with rising sea levels, according to Climate Central’s analysis, which uses federal data, historic flood statistics and sea rise projections to map flooding in 11 U.S. coastal states.
Statewide, $36.5 billion in property and 145,000 people are located on land less than three feet above the high tide line, with 90 percent in the San Francisco Bay and Delta. Climate Central’s analysis assumes that protective structures such as levees are intact and work properly, presenting a best-case scenario.