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Scientists warn California's floods may be a sample of the megafloods to come

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

California residents are beginning to recover from the barrage of intense storms this winter that caused levee failures and flooding. Some climate scientists say the wild weather is just a sample of what we can expect in a warmer world. KQED's Ezra David Romero has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Antonio Hueso evacuated his home in the early morning hours of March 12. That's when the Pajaro River levee in Monterey County failed. His two-story home is about an hour south of San Francisco. The cameras on his daisy-yellow-colored house caught the water submerging his street and then his first floor.

ANTONIO HUESO: I check my cameras 8 o' clock. This is a second river.

ROMERO: It's the second time the 72-year-old's home has flooded because this levee failed. He's now considering leaving his home of nearly five decades.

HUESO: I'll fix the house. And when the people forget this, I sell my house, and I move to Madera or Fresno. I don't know.

ROMERO: UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain warns what Californians have lived through this winter is only a taste of what's to come as human-caused climate change continues.

DANIEL SWAIN: As disruptive as this year's events have been, we're nowhere near close to a plausible worst-case storm and flood scenario for California.

ROMERO: Swain is clear about the links between climate change and the increase in extreme flooding. In a study last year, Swain looked at the worst-case scenario - a weekslong parade of extreme atmospheric rivers which California did not have this year. Swain found the warming climate has already doubled the probability of a megaflood. Such catastrophic flooding could create more than $1 trillion in damage.

SWAIN: It could happen next year, or it might not happen for a hundred years.

ROMERO: If this pattern of back-to-back atmospheric rivers sounds familiar, it's because Californians are witnessing an echo of this. Swain says the main differences are that this winter's storms had breaks between them and that none of the storms were considered extreme.

SWAIN: We see that it is possible to have years where there are multiple atmospheric rivers in a row that are much stronger than what we saw at any point this year.

ROMERO: California is taking Swain's predictions seriously. Michael Anderson is the state's climatologist. He's trying to convince the state to fund a project that would model severe flooding scenarios, considering climate data, weather forecasting and local conditions. Anderson says this would give the state a heads-up on just how severe a storm pattern could be, what's at risk of flooding and who should evacuate.

MICHAEL ANDERSON: Unfortunately, Mother Nature kind of beat us to the punch here. But we're working on trying to develop a capability to kind of help us better understand how to recognize when things are scaling up so that you get the right level of response dialed in. And it's a tool we don't have right now.

ROMERO: The project could be completed in a year if the state approves it. The planning is already late for people dealing with flooding from failed levees this winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DENIA ESCUTIA: The squishy sound is still water being here and mud.

ROMERO: Denia Escutia woke up to the sound of water trickling into her room hours after the Pajaro levee broke.

ESCUTIA: My feet touched the rug, and the rug was wet.

ROMERO: Escutia is 18 and is questioning whether Pajaro can remain home due to the effects of human-caused climate change.

What do you think your future will look like if you stay here?

ESCUTIA: My future - I feel like it will look like gone.

ROMERO: Gone because the climate the levee was designed for no longer exists. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOGWAI'S "DON'T MAKE ME GO OUT ON MY OWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero/KQED