If you’re a Californian, the last two weeks of storms has felt like a storm season that will never end!
If you’re a Californian, the last two weeks of storms has felt like a storm season that will never end! In the past, I’ve written about major weather related events such as hurricanes and the resulting property damage, insurance issues, and lawsuits. Most weather-related events and their litigation aftermath always seem to happen somewhere else. On the East Coast. Or, in the Midwest. Rarely do they seem to impact California.
California, my home state. A state known for beautiful views. From sandy beaches to exquisite mountain vistas. The San Francisco Bay Area to Yosemite. It’s a wonderful place.
The people… We’re a spoiled, complaining bunch. Until approximately 12/31/2022, you’d have heard regular complaints about the severe drought plaguing our state. We’re filled with fear and non-stop commentary about how we really “need the water.” This drought has been a part of California-life for my entire lifetime. Same sayings. Same complaints. Mostly the same conservation efforts.
As of 1/11/2023, our daily complaints have changed dramatically. Now, we’re bemoaning 13 days of snow, rain, hail and wind. I have to be clear here. These storms have now happened for 13 consecutive days. There have been breaks. The severity of the storms, however, have been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a lifelong Californian. Our Governor declared a State of Emergency for the entire State. For weather? Yes! For weather.
Please realize I’m making light of our current situation, albeit briefly, because of my perspective as a Californian. In reality, tens of thousands of people have been negatively impacted by flooding, snow, and wind. Dangerous and long-lasting power outages, property damage, and lives lost as a result of never before experienced weather events.
It’s weird to us because in most parts of the state it’s sunny 300 days a year. Is it cold in January and February? Yes, a little, but it’s sunny. Some years, we hardly get rain worth remembering. In fact, I can’t recall a storm since the winter of 2017, when there was a crisis at the Oroville Dam after rain damaged the spillways. Almost 6 full years with no notable weather events (at least in Northern, CA, where I’m located).
The Santa Barbara mountains face flood issues a little more regularly. They had substantial flooding and mudslides in 2018. Five years later, they are dealing with significant floods once again.
If I haven’t been clear, major weather events in California are rare compared to our fellow US States. Phrases like “bomb cyclones” and “atmospheric rivers” are uncommon here. Let alone multiple continuing atmospheric rivers over a 2-2.5 week time frame.
As I do when I have questions about events in which I have no expertise, I reached out to one of our expert witnesses to provide some insight.
Meteorology and Atmospheric Science Expert Witness Timothy Minnich
Timothy R. Minnich MS, QEP, President of Minnich & Scotto, Inc., is a Meteorologist and Atmospheric Scientist with over 40 years experience in the design and management of a wide range of ambient air and meteorological investigations under CERCLA and the Clean Air Act. He is a recognized technical expert on high-profile legal cases, with assignments involving forensic meteorology and reconstruction of inhalation scenarios in relation to community exposure to hazardous air pollutants (HAP).
Mr. Minnich is accomplished in presenting conclusions and opinions derived from analysis of complex technical data in a well-reasoned and easily understood manner. He is a skilled technical writer and proven manager in a highly specialized arena. He is a nationally recognized expert in the application of optical remote sensing (ORS) for hazardous waste site remediation. He has designed and managed more than 25 ORS field investigations and air dispersion model validation studies since the promulgation of U.S.EPA (EPA) Method TO-16 for open-path FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared) spectroscopy in 1988.
After about 11 or 12 days of continuous storms, I reached out to Tim with some questions because I was hearing weather-related terms I’d never before heard. Below, you’ll find my questions and Tim’s answers!
Questions & Answers
Nick Rishwain: California is dealing with a series of storms to which we’re not accustomed. As a meteorologist, can you explain for the layperson, the concept of a “bomb cyclone?”
Tim Minnich: A “bomb cyclone” is a term recently coined to identify a storm (non-tropical) which is rapidly deepening. It comes from the term “bombogenesis,” which means a non-tropical storm in which the atmospheric pressure drops at least 24 millibars in 24 hours or less.
Nick Rishwain: According to news reports, we’re also experiencing a number of “atmospheric rivers.” Or, maybe it is one ongoing atmospheric river? Can you explain the concept of “atmospheric river?”
Tim Minnich: An “atmospheric river” is a term that simply refers to a rapidly moving plume of moisture at high altitudes. It is generally associated with a storm which provides heavy rain or snow.
Nick Rishwain: As a Northern, Californian, we’re not used to the weather impacting us since the New Year. What type of litigation / lawsuits are likely to stem from the wind, rain, snow, and flooding we’re experiencing?
Tim Minnich: I would expect the most common form of litigation would likely involve property damage claims caused by flooding, wind damage, and roof collapses associated with extreme snow loading.
Nick Rishwain: What types of meteorological investigations might a forensic meteorologist like yourself be asked to conduct in the aftermath of a storm ravaged California?
Tim Minnich: Working with engineers, such investigations would provide direct evidence – such as official meteorological observations – to support whether or not the actual damage was caused by the extreme weather conditions at the time.
Nick Rishwain: I’m assuming it would be a good idea for counsel, businesses, or insurance companies to contact you in the early aftermath of these storms. How might a meteorologist assist in the immediate aftermath of these storms?
Tim Minnich: By providing an early technical analysis as to the likelihood of success in either filing a claim (plaintiff) or denying a claim (defendant).
Nick Rishwain: I’m also assuming there are going to standard property damage and insurance claims stemming from wind, rain, snow, and flooding. What are some of the hidden dangers/damages resulting from storm damage?
Tim Minnich: Structural damage to buildings represents the most serious situations arising from extreme storms. The immediate danger of building collapse from strong winds or downed trees is obvious, but compromised foundations represents a risk that should be swiftly investigated by a qualified engineer if serious flooding or long periods of saturated soil has occurred.
Nick Rishwain: You have expertise in “exposure to hazardous pollutants.” Are those a danger to Californians as a result of flooding? Or, as a result of some other storm damage?
Tim Minnich: I would say that exposure to hazardous pollutants arising from direct contact with contaminated water would generally not be a problem, unless flood waters have breached industrial areas — specifically containment facilities which house hazardous materials.
More to Come
We’re grateful for Tim’s willingness to participate in this timely blog post. I wish I could tell you this topic is complete, but the existing storm watch says California may not have any reprieve until 1/18/2023. To the best of my understanding, that only means a reprieve from the currently identified storm front. Not sure what to expect for the remainder of the winter and spring. As such, I may be back with another weather-related update before you know it!