Calling the "B" Ark

March 31, 2011 by cynick | Posted in b-ark , saint-paul

I’ve lived in Lowertown for a little over seven years now. During the three years before moving in, I was making regular trips there to witness/oversee the restoration and redevelopment of the historic building I live in.

In all that time, the Mississippi rose above flood stage four or five times (depending on which government bureaucracy you ask). Even though my building is at one of the lowest elevations in the city, it has never flooded, due to an elaborate pumping system in the basement.

This year, something new happened: I received a letter from the city that said I might be required to evacuate, given this year’s forecast for a potentially historic flood.

Wow! That sounded pretty serious! A meeting was scheduled at the Black Dog, presumably so that more details on this possibility could be conveyed to the people in the neighborhood.

And I must say, out of the public meetings I’ve been to, this one was highly attended indeed! Every single person in that room had one question on their minds – under what conditions could we expect a call to evacuate?

Instead of getting an answer to that question, we were treated to a 1.5 hour masterpiece of government non-information and misinformation.

The meeting started with an introduction of all the various people from different departments who were going to speak. This went on and on and on, including thank yous to this and that person for planning the meeting – like an Oscar acceptance speech that’s way past its expiration date.

Then the Power Point slides started rolling. For the first twenty minutes, an historical recap of all flooding in St. Paul. While interesting, this had very little do with what’s happening now.

The crowd began stirring. One woman asked, “This is all well and good, but when will we have to evacuate?”

Response: “I cannot predict any flood timing, I am not a hydrologist.”

Then our “Not a Hydrologist” – who was some suit from the city emergency planning department – proceeded with a presentation of hydrologic data, including the current NOAA hydrologic prediction chart in cubic feet per second vs. time, and historical probabilistic exceedance forecast as well as a deterministic forecast based on current conditions.

Eyes glazed over. When asked the difference between probabilistic and deterministic, the guy said they were different mathematical “theorems”. (?!)

Our “Not a Mathematician” was then asked the same question again, perhaps in more specific terms: Under what conditions would we be forced to evacuate?

For the first time since the meeting began, he tossed out a nugget of new information! He said that the city may be forced to shut down the sewer system, and if that were to happen, we wouldn’t be able to occupy our units.

Great! Under what circumstances would the city shut down the sewer? “I don’t know, I’m not a civil engineer.”

By now, most people had figured out that no information would be forthcoming, except for a woman who piped up to say that she lived on the first floor of the Tilsner, and she was worried that she could be flooded out. A guy nearby rather rudely asked her if she’d been listening at all.

But, I thought, “At last! I can give someone some useful information!” I set about to find the photograph from the record 1965 flood that showed Kellogg Boulevard under a few feet of water, but well below the first floor of the Tilsner. When I showed it to her, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had found it on the front page of the Tilsner’s own website.

Mention was then made of the possibility of shutting off power. Someone asked whether this could happen block by block or building by building.

“I don’t know, I don’t work for Xcel.”

More things may have been said in the following forty minutes of speakers with important sounding titles – perhaps something about the Humane Society, or something about phone numbers to call – but my mind was far, far away by then.