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The Cost of California's "Thousand-Year" Storms: A Look into San Diego After the Floods

Updated: Feb 22

This month, our communities were overwhelmed with heavy rainfall, extreme floods, water rescues, and evacuations. After less than one week of recovery, rainfall again inundated our region. With demolished homes and businesses, displaced families, and submerged neighborhoods, it is clear we are ill-prepared for the challenges posed by our changing climate. We must take action now to protect our communities and region. 

The recent storms exposed inadequacies in San Diego’s stormwater systems. Aging drainage systems, inadequate flood defenses, poor urban planning, and lack of maintenance have all contributed to the severity of this month’s storms and flooding. This damage underscores the importance of investing in resilient systems to mitigate the impacts of future disasters.

Local flooding has forced many residents to evacuate and, in severe cases, be displaced indefinitely, forcing many families to seek out temporary shelters. The devastation of these storms is costly to both residents and our region. This cost is not evenly distributed, with frontline communities—already traditionally underinvested—bearing the brunt of damages and costs.

The city’s current post-disaster response through emergency repairs is inefficient and costly, failing to address the limitations of the stormwater system. Waiting until after a disaster to address systematic problems is unsafe and unacceptable. 

The reality is the price of inaction is far more costly—and more deadly—than that of immediate action.

The average annual economic costs of flooding in the U.S. are rising. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the average annual cost of flood damages in the U.S. is $8.2 billion. California is not exempt from experiencing these costs. In 1982 and 1997, California experienced storms that caused severe flooding. The net damages of the two flood events alone were estimated to be $1.4 billion.

In contrast, the City of San Diego estimates a “systemwide upgrade of the stormwater system” would be $1.3 billion. While the city is correct in citing it as a hefty sum, it is insignificant compared to the billions in damage we’ve been accruing over the past three decades alone.  

The city has been aware of its stormwater problems and needs to invest. A 2018 audit indicates a $459 million funding shortfall for stormwater infrastructure in the City of San Diego. The audit says the city needs to meet its spending needs to comply with water quality requirements. The report highlights that the city has been aware of insufficient funding. Still, action has yet to be taken to increase revenues in the last 20 years, and the city needs to be more transparent in educating the public about this shortfall and its potential dangers.

As a result, residents are ill-prepared when disaster strikes. Our Climate Action Campaign team spent time in Southcrest to prepare flood-affected neighbors for more rainfall. During our time with residents, we saw first-hand the impacts of both storm damage and lack of transparency. 

As flood insurance is optional if you live in a low-risk zone like Southcrest, less than 2% of California homeowners have flood insurance. Unfortunately, homeowners' insurance doesn’t protect against this type of flooding. Even knowing this, little action is taken to protect these neighborhoods against storm risks. 

Flood-affected communities have been begging the city for action. In Southcrest, which experienced significant flooding and damage from last week’s rain, residents have submitted complaints and requests for assistance for years. These calls went largely unanswered.

One Southcrest High School teacher told our team how the recent storms have taken a toll on her students. Many students lost belongings, evacuated homes, lost transportation to school and work, and are stressed from the financial and emotional burden placed on them and their families. 
One woman lost her entire bottom floor, in which she ran her business. With the devastation of her property and vehicles, she is out of her source of income and has thousands of dollars in damage. In an attempt to protect herself and her family, she followed the advice of local officials and traveled for over an hour to receive aid, only to be turned away from the help she needed. She expressed hesitancy in being offered assistance from community organizations due to her distrust of false promises. 
Southcrest has an elderly population, meaning many residents are forced to stay home due to medical and mobility issues. These residents were only offered aid from community groups but felt overlooked by their representatives. 

These stories are just the beginning. Hundreds of residents across the County are experiencing similar disasters and devastation. 

We’re actively seeing the impacts of a lack of regional action. Council President Elo-Rivera and city leaders are spearheading a ballot measure to secure funding for both stormwater infrastructure and an emergency relief fund. We’ll be building off this momentum to advocate for the needs of our communities and prioritize long-term solutions, including investments into frontline communities hit first and worst by the climate crisis.

We appreciate the outpouring of support from our neighbors and community, who have joined together this past week to aid those impacted by the storms and flooding.

If the floods have impacted you, please utilize this list of resources to get you and your family to safety. 

➡️ Read Beneath the Surface of California’s “Thousand-Year” Storms to learn more about why California is experiencing stronger storms and how we can mitigate damage. 

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