Atmospheric River Meditation in SF

by Joel Pomerantz

December 13th, 2014

Here’s my 7-minute storm video, meditative and exploratory rather than my usual strict documentation.

San Francisco was blasted by a few inches of rain in a single day on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. It was an ‘atmospheric river’ (AR) blasting at the coast like a fire hose. These “rivers” contain as much water as many Mississippis, wafting through the air about a mile above the sea from the equatorial region beyond Hawai’i.

This one first blasted Canada and then Washington, then Oregon, then us (in essEFF), then Southern California.

I’ve been researching the probable AR storm sequence of 1861 & 1862, as readers of this site will know, so I decided to go out and capture some images around town. It won’t appear especially dramatic to people from wetter climates, but the SF infrastructure and history of drought prepares us poorly us for this kind of thing.

My friend John’s offices (Stripe) at Folsom and 18th Street are so flood prone they moved all the furniture upstairs! Last time a storm like this came, it flooded the area four feet deep. But he was spared this time!

Music in this video is Aïya Aïya by Rachid Taha, who (quoting Wikipedia) is an Algerian singer and activist based in France. • Please support him and his brilliant work! •

If you want to help do research on the AR of 1862, please let us know!

4 Comments to “Atmospheric River Meditation in SF”

  1. Danny G says:

    Nice! I dug out my 40-year-old galoshes that day and got a good workout kicking leaves off of drains in my hood.

  2. Mike B says:

    Great video! Here’s a thought about where that water goes once it hits the drain.

    SF doesn’t have a separate storm drain system – it all goes into the sewer plant, unlike most newer towns where there are separate storm and sanitary sewers. They’ve always thought that was bad – the sewage treatment plant has to be able to handle a huge peak flow, and still needs storage for outrageous storm flows. But is it really so bad to have a combined system? Places with separate storm sewers now have many expensive stormwater cleanup requirements (streets are dirty…), but SF really just has to make sure there aren’t any overflows – it all goes through the treatment plant eventually. So is old-bad actually good?

  3. Grace says:

    Love it! Especially the chance to see my neighborhood in the throes of the storm while sitting warm and dry at my desk 🙂

  4. Chris Dichtel says:

    Hi, Joel!

    Finally got around to watching this, and it brought a few things to mind.

    About a year ago we had a heavy rain, after a period of no rain for months, and as all the storm drains were full of an accumulation of detritus, they quite naturally backed up, producing localized flood points whose epicenters were to be found at the corner curb drain.

    I’d seen news bites on TV the day before in which city officials were stating they had not the manpower to hit every storm drain in the hours before the storm hit, and encouraging city residents to simply take a plastic trash bag and a dustpan and broom, fill it with the detritus atop a drain (or two), and just leave the bag there on the corner for them to pick up. As you so soggily demonstrated in this flick, kicking it away with your foot is about as effective as shooing a fly away from a juicy steak: it just comes right back.

    My Swiss roommate was appalled that the city would allow the drains to get to that state.

    “Where I’m from they would have people out there regularly cleaning those things out.”

    “Luzerne is about one-tenth the population of San Francisco, but I get your point.”

    I was in Vinyl Cafe (Oak at Divisadero) that day, and everyone in there was edgily eyeing the doorway, since water had backed up from the drain over the sidewalk and within about an inch of the door sill. Once it crests that, you’ve got a flooded cafe, and possibly thousands of dollars in damage.

    In an almost cinematic last-minute rescue, a car pulled up, made a slow, tight turn into that corner such that his right wheels were nearly submerged, and stopped. The wave ripples from its arrival nearly sent water over the door sill, but not quite. The passenger door flew open, and the cafe owner leaned out with a long pole and began poking furiously at the invisibly submerged drain. Suddenly a big sucking sound erupted from the thing, followed by a whirlpool of in-rushing water. Day saved! Or at least that little corner of it.

    Might be a nice thing to include as one of the many juicy and informative tidbits in your walks. (Such as the bit about decoding the colored dots on storm drains.) You know, just keep a dustpan and broom and plastic trash bag near your door for such events, a simple little altruistic act. Who can argue with that?

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