Understanding Natural Hazard Risks: Hurricane Harvey, the California Megaflood of 1861-62, and the Future

The Houston Metro area and large areas of southeast Texas have been devastated by record flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.  There was tragic loss of life, and astronomically expensive damage to property and infrastructure.   There will be a lot of discussion about how more frequent severe storms are a part of global climate change, and we can also focus on the science of weather forecasting, which continues to advance with new computational models and satellite data being utilized.   But a very important point for us to reflect upon is how we could have done a better job of planning how we built our cities and infrastructure to protect against this loss of life and costly damage to property.

Scene showing freeways flooded and vehicles stranded, near downtown Houston.
Scene showing freeways flooded and vehicles stranded, near downtown Houston.

The fact is, catastrophic flooding in the Houston area was a highly predictable event.  The National Flood Hazard Map maintained by FEMA can be viewed online here.  Once the map is open, you can type “Houston” into the search bar in the upper right and zoom into the area most affected by the storm.  You will need to zoom in further to see the specific flood hazard zones displayed.  Pan around the city, especially to the west of downtown, and note the areas of 1% and 0.2% annual risk of flooding.  That corresponds to the so-called 100-year and 500-year flood events.  After a flood in 1935,  channels and reservoirs were built around Houston to try to control flooding, and areas prone to inundation were identified.  But Houston continued to grow and much of this growth extended into wetlands and low-lying areas where the risk of flooding was high.  Gradually more was understood about the area’s hydrology, and it became clear that the reservoir system would not be able to protect the city from a “probable maximum flood event.”

So why was Houston’s development allowed to proceed directly into the area of greatest flood hazard?  The economic imperatives of growth and the desire to provide affordable housing for a booming population overwhelmed the scientific evidence about risk, and the region’s leaders allowed developers to build and profit where they  Now the chose.   Excellent stories in the Atlantic, New York Times,  and Wired provide a more thorough analysis of the problem, which they describe as a design problem and not a weather problem.   Now Houston — the people as well as local, state and federal governments — must decide how to rebuild the city and whether to use what they know now to lessen the risk of flooding faced by future Houstonians.

We aren’t at risk for something like that happening in California though, are we?  Actually, California experienced an even more incredible flooding event – back in 1861-62.  It is called the California Megaflood.  You can read about it here.  “A 43-day storm that began in December 1861 put central and southern California underwater for up to six months…  This disaster turned enormous regions of the state into inland seas for months, and took thousands of human lives. The costs were devastating: one quarter of California’s economy was destroyed, forcing the state into bankruptcy.”  This flood was associated with a phenomenon known as an atmospheric river, and California and the west coast continue to be at risk for this kind of storm event.

A scene from January 10, 1862 shows flooded K St., looking east from 4th St.
A scene from January 10, 1862 shows flooded K St., looking east from 4th St. CREDIT: SACRAMENTO HISTORY ARCHIVES

Go back to the flood risk map and type Sacramento into the search bar.  You can see how the flood risk has been mitigated by the building of levees, as the flood risk in Houston was mitigated by the building of channels and impoundment reservoirs.  But are the levees we built in the past sufficient to protect us from the storms that will come in the future?  This is a vitally important question, and we need geography to be able to analyze the risk and develop plans that protect people and property.

BREAKING NEWS – Winners of My California GIS Mapping Competition

The CGA’s first ever statewide GIS mapping competition for 4th through 12th grade students has concluded.  5 students projects have been selected as state finalists in each of two divisions.  The authors of each project will be awarded a prize of $100, and the projects will be advanced to the national competition.  5 other projects have been selected for Honorable Mention.

The CGA wants to thank:

  • the NorCal Chapter of URISA and the California Geographic Information Association for their generous support of this competition;
  • the 29 schools that registered for the competition, including all the teachers and students who invested their time in creating projects about their state;
  • all of the judges who lent their time and expertise to scoring the entries and selecting the very best;
  • and Dr. Waverly Ray who took the lead in coordinating the competition and brought enthusiasm and skill to the task!

Without further ado, we present the winners.

In the middle school (4th-8th grade) division…

In the high school (9th-12th grade) division…

And also deserving of honorable mention are the following projects.

In the middle school (4th-8th grade) division…

In the high school (9th-12th grade) division…


Meet the Judges for the My California GIS Mapping Exhibition and Competition

Janet Brewster

GIS Specialist, California Department of Fish and Wildlife

  • My career has spanned multiple disciplines, and GIS has moved right along with me. From environmental planning to facilities to land and wildlife conservation, I have been able to use GIS to conduct analyses, create and manage data, and make connections that weren’t otherwise possible. But perhaps best of all, I can share all of this information on a map, rather than in a dry list of names and numbers. Who doesn’t love a good map?!


Nancy Ferris

Editor, BayGeo Journal, BayGeo

(a GIS professional organization for the San Francisco Bay Area)

  • I love using GIS because it’s like solving a puzzle. GIS helps you use data to answer questions in the real world, and the software itself can be a puzzle to solve!
  • I first used GIS during my college summer job working for the Army Corps of Engineers. I immediately fell in love.
  • I studied on the job, online, and at the Defense Department’s mapping school.
  • I’ve used GIS to make graphics to locate water resources in developing countries, helped with disaster relief situations in the U.S. and abroad, and for environmental work in California. I’ve also developed enterprise GIS databases and web mapping services, and worked on Department of Defense GIS data standards.


Erica Freer

Assistant Professor (Economics), California State University San Marcos 

  • I love GIS because of its endless possibilities and applications. Modeling data spatially can help transform the way we think about data and open our eyes to patterns we may have never found otherwise. As an Urban Economist, I explore the spatial relationships in many different topic areas: poverty, crime, transportation, housing, education, segregation, urban sprawl, and more. GIS is a great tool no matter what your interests or field of study!


Tyler Friesen

GIS Analyst, Dudek

  • I enjoy GIS because it is truly an interdisciplinary field.  In one day I can go from creating maps that show the results of an archeological excavation to modeling a proposed fire station’s incident response times to creating a mobile app that allows biologists to collect endangered species occurrences.  No matter what type of data you are working with GIS can help to answer the question of why what is where.
  • The first time I used GIS was in a geography class in college at San Diego State University.
  • I use GIS daily in my career to study, represent, model, and analyze environmental phenomena throughout the western United States in support of environmental permitting for private and public projects that improve communities’ infrastructure and natural environments.


Katsuhiko Oda

Assistant Professor, Spatial Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California

  • I love GIS since it is a powerful tool for doing geography and thinking spatially.
  • I used ARC/INFO 3.0 more than two decades ago when I was an undergraduate student.
  • I studied GIS in Nara University (Japan), the University of Toledo (Ohio), and Texas A&M University (Texas).
  • I have used GIS as a GIS analyst, researcher, and educator in my career.


Waverly Ray

Associate Professor of Geography, San Diego Mesa College

  • I first used GIS during a class when I was an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech. We worked on a project to help the local Habitat for Humanity decide if they should accept end-of-year donations of land parcels. It was the first time that I had a class project that actually made a contribution to the community—I thought that was a pretty cool!


Ming-Hsiang Tsou

Professor, San Diego State University

  • I started to use GIS in 1989 when I was a college student at National Taiwan University.  I used ARC/INFO and wrote AML codes (Arc Macro Language) for some mapping projects on a VAX-11 mini-computer.


Maureen Kelley

Lecturer, Geography & Global Studies Department,

San Jose State University


  • The first time I used and understood the power of GIS was when I interned at the USGS-Menlo Park in the 1990s working for geologists. The application we used was command line Arc/INFO running on a UNIX operating system. I studied GIS at San Jose State for my undergraduate career, the USGS for a master’s degree internship, and the University of Oregon for their PhD program.



Get Your Students Involved in the My California GIS Mapping Exhibition and Competition!


With registration for the competition now closed, the CGA is happy to report that 29 schools have registered for the competition.  That could mean as many as 145 student entries in the state final!

An illustrious panel of eleven judges has stepped forward to evaluate and rank the student entries, so we are all set for an exciting competition.  Thank you to all of our volunteer judges!

Click here to see a map of schools registered for the competition.


The California Geographic Alliance is hosting an exciting statewide mapping showcase and competition that encourages middle (4th-8th grade) and high school (9th-12th grade) students to harness the power of Geographic Information Systems and get connected with their state by producing an online map that focuses on stories, issues, or ideas that are important to them.

Registrations due March 15, 2017!

Go to the contest page for full details.

Thanks to the Northern California URISA Chapter and the California Geographic Information Association for their generous support of this effort!

Meet the competition judges

Amazing lineup of geography sessions and workshops planned for CCSS conference in Sacramento

Planning on attending the California Council for the Social Studies Conference in Sacramento, March 3-5?

The CGA is proud to be a Silver Sponsor of the conference, and we are even more excited to be sponsoring an amazing array of sessions and workshops. Come visit the booth in the exhibit hall to learn about the latest resources and see some incredible maps, and please check out these great sessions.


10a – 6p
Exhibit Hall: Explore CGA Resources and the Historic Map Gallery

Session: Human Geography with a Global Studies Lens…for Everyone!
Presenters: Kelly León, Joel Rodriguez (Room: Feather River)
Sweetwater Union High School District curriculum specialists will present the new Human Geography course for all ninth graders in the district. Goals of the course, district-wide implementation and training, instructional guides, & formative assessments will be examined. Come find out what 21st Century geography is all about and how to implement it at the district and classroom level.

Strand(s): HS Gen 21st Century Geography

Session: Beyond 13: The enduring legacy of North America’s Spanish colonies.
Presenter: Mimi Coughlin (Room: Feather River)
This session offers a counter-narrative to “British centric” U.S. history that is taught as a progression of people and ideas that move from east to west across the continent. Spanish colonization, especially efforts to settle California, will be considered. Influences on America culture that progressed north from Mexico to the U.S. will be presented through inquiry-based teaching resources.

Strand(s): MS HS Gen Ethnic Studies History Geography


 9a – 4p
Exhibit Hall: Explore CGA Resources and the Historic Map Gallery

Workshop: Become a National Geographic Certified Educator
Presenters: Mary Janzen, Thomas Herman (Room: El Camino)
This workshop will introduce K-12 educators to the National Geographic Teacher Certification Program. By attending, you will complete Phase1 of the process, and you will learn the steps through which you can become certified and become part of an exciting and rapidly growing educator community and get preferred access to unique opportunities, such as connecting your classroom to National Geographic explorers.

Strand(s): EL MS HS 21st Century Blended Learning History Geography

Workshop: Geo-Quest: Embracing New Technologies and the New Framework to Deepen Engagement and Learning
Presenter: Thomas Herman (Room: California 4)
Geo-Quest is an initiative of the California Geographic Alliance that provides students at all grade levels with the tools and scaffolding needed for in-depth learning and critical thinking. By examining topics from all social studies disciplines in geographic context, students become active, geo-literate, and knowledgeable citizens who can develop solutions to contemporary problems and succeed in college, career and civic life.

Strand(s): EL MS HS Gen PBL 21st Century History Geography Economics Civics

Workshop: Get Your Feet on the California Giant Traveling Map
Presenters: Joshua Bess, Amanda Marcus (Room: Maxi’s)
This session will introduce teachers to the California Geographic Alliance’s brand new Giant Traveling Map and a set of engaging, standards-based learning activities for third and fourth grades.

Strand(s): EL 21st Century History Geography

Session: Teaching 21st Century Geography and Global Education
Presenters:  Emily Schell, Stacey Greer, Thomas Herman (Room: California 3)
What is contemporary geography and global competence? What are the most effective and engaging ways to teach these standards-based concepts and skills? Teacher Leaders in the Sacramento region are engaged in a year-long professional inquiry project to explore and implement answers to these questions. Come learn about our project findings and share your insights and experiences with project leaders.

Strand(s): Gen PBL 21st Century Blended Learning History Geography Civics


Session: Using web-based mapping tools to enhance spatial thinking
Presenters: Greg Sloan and Robin Herrnberger (Room: Garden)
Make use of free web-based technology to have students interact and create geospatial presentations of data. Attendees will learn how to access ArcGIS Online for themselves and their school, learn about existing lessons, and how using spatial thinking can enhance the relevance and experience of data and mapping projects in the classroom.

Strand(s): MS HS PBL 21st Century History Geography

CGA Supports GIS Day Event at CDE

On November 15, the topic of the day at the California Department of Education was Geographic Information Science.  More specifically, an internal event organized by CDE staff encouraged staff from a number of different departments within CDE to explore the potential of GIS as a tool in education.

The event had three components aimed at engaging the audience of education professionals.  CGA Director Tom Herman and CGA Geospatial Technology Coordinator Dr. Ming-Hsiang Tsou joined Dr. Hugh Howard (American River College) and a GIS Specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers on an expert panel.  A highlight of the day was hearing from a group from the Math Science & Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. roosevelt-high-students-at-2016-gis-dayThe students attended with their outstanding English teacher, Alice Im, and presented their work examining relationships between school segregation and graduation rates and exploring environmental racism by comparing the health problems and government responses related to the Porter Ranch gas leak and the Exide Technologies toxic contamination case in Vernon.  The CGA also hosted an informational table with our friends from The History Project at UC Davis to share GeoInquiries and how we are helping educators to engage their students in geographic inquiry using GIS.

One important message from the day was that GIS provided powerful tools for managing resources and making decisions in complex environments, but the value of GIS is unlocked by human understanding.  People still need to be able to ask good questions, and this means geography education is foundational and must be strengthened if we are to fully benefit from the potential of GIS in education and society.

The CGA was thrilled to be able to support this event, and we look forward to more exciting developments coming out of the State Department of Education regarding geography.

California Giant Traveling Map Available for 2017!

The Network of Alliances for Geographic Education has an exciting new national initiative for 2017: the State Giant Traveling Map Program.  At least two giant maps of California (17 x 21 feet, so not as large as the giant continent maps) will be circulating the state beginning in January.  The maps are specifically designed for use by 3rd and 4th grade students, and they come with lesson plans designed by National Geographic and tied to standards for those grades.

Three teachers from California went to Denver, Colorado this past summer to receive training from National Geographic staff.  They have also developed lesson plans specific to our state standards, which they have begun piloting with teachers and students.  The CGA wants to thank Stephanie Buttell-Maxin, Mandi Marcus, and Josh Bess for their support of the National Initiative in California.  We will all benefit from their thoughtful leadership.

Interested in getting the California Giant Traveling Map to your school?  Click on this link to provide your name, school details, and contact info: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/6WJM6HP and someone will be in touch with you soon.



GEEO Helps Educators Make International Travel Part of Professional Development!

At the CGA, we see geographic knowledge and skills and global citizenship as intertwined and mutually supportive. Therefore, we encourage educators to use travel as part of an individualized professional development strategy. We are happy to share the following information from GEEO, a unique non-profit organization designed to serve educators and offering a fabulous range of travel experiences at reasonable cost.



 will talk about these trips all year in my classes. For so many of my students, my description of my travels will be the only exposure they will have to other countries and other ways of life.” -Teacher Michael Baldwin, who’s first time traveling abroad was with GEEO.

Travel the world, earn professional development credit, and bring global understanding into your classroom!

Founded in 2007, Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO) is a 501c3 non-profit organization that has sent over 1600 teachers abroad on adventurous travel programs. With GEEO educators can earn professional development credits and optional graduate credit while seeing the world. GEEO’s trips are 7 to 21 days in length and are designed and discounted to be interesting and affordable for teachers. In addition to amazing tour leaders, many of the programs are accompanied by university faculty that are experts on the destination. GEEO also provides teachers educational materials and the structure to help them bring their experiences into the classroom. The trips are open to all nationalities of K-12 and university educators, administrators, retired educators, as well as educators’ guests. The deposit is $250 for each program and then the final payment is due 60 days before departure.

GEEO is offering the following travel programs for 2017: Bali/Lombok, Bangkok to Hanoi, China, Costa Rica, Eastern Europe, The Galapagos Islands, Greece, Iceland, India/Nepal, Bhutan, Ireland, Armenia/Georgia, Italy, Multi-Stan, Antarctica, Morocco, Myanmar (Burma), Peruvian Amazon, Peruvian Andes, Southern Africa, Vietnam/Cambodia, Balkans and, a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb. Detailed information about each trip, including itineraries, costs, travel dates, and more can be found at www.geeo.org. GEEO can be reached 7 days a week, toll-free at 1-877-600-0105 between 9 AM-9 PM EST.

Support the AAG’s Proposal for a New Advanced Placement course in Geographic Information Science & Technology

CGA members who are US high school teachers, here is a chance to help connect high school educational programs to real-world work skills and career opportunities in a new way…

Support the AAG’s Proposal for a New Advanced Placement course in Geographic Information Science & Technology

With support from the Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP), the American Association of Geographers (AAG) has developed a proposal for a new Advanced Placement course inGeographic Information Science and Technology (AP GIS&T).

All U.S. high schools, colleges, and universities are invited to review the proposal by visiting www.apgist.org.

AP GIS&T is designed to introduce high school students to the fundamentals of geographic information science and applications of powerful geospatial technologies for spatial analysis and problem solving. Together with AP Human Geography, AP GIS&T offers an opportunity to engage students in outstanding geographic learning experiences and promote awareness of the many college and career opportunities available in the discipline.

The AP GIS&T course proposal has attracted broad support from prominent scientific and educational organizations, as well as major technology employers such as Google.

For AP GIS&T to become a reality, the AAG needs to collect attestations from 250 U.S. high schools that confirm they have the interest and capacity to offer the course. Similar assurances are needed from 100 colleges and universities that they would be willing to offer some form of credit to students who demonstrate proficiency on the AP GIS&T exam.

The AAG invites high school principals and academic department chairpersons to consider adding their institution to the list of AP GIS&T supporters by completing the brief attestation form at www.apgist.org. The AAG’s goal is to complete the attestation process by October 1, 2016.

Have questions about AP GIS&T? Contact the AAG at ap_gist@aag.org.

Superintendent Torlakson Announces Approval of History–Social Science Framework

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced on July 14 that the State Board of Education voted to approve the History–Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, which will update and upgrade history and social science instruction in California.  This is great news that has been a long-time in coming.  It is important to note that NO CHANGE has been made to the state’s History-Social Science Standards.  Our friends at the California History-Social Science Project explain that and other important points about the new framework and what it means here:

What You Need to Know About California’s New History-Social Science Framework

And while a properly formatted and printed version of the framework is not yet available, you can access the full contents of the document here:

2016 History-Social Science Framework

We are excited about building our PD programs around the framework and look forward to a future revision of the standards.