Runway to Safety

City can create flood escape route through airport

By R.E. Graswich
May 2023

Maybe it wasn’t the smartest move, placing the city’s public safety headquarters at the end of a deadly Executive Airport runway, in a building where a jet crashed and killed 22 people. But so far, so good. The police and fire headquarters survived two decades without incident.

Now Gerald Thomas, a thoughtful Inside Sacramento reader, thinks the runway, known as 12/30 in aviation vernacular, can perform a lifesaving role. With minimal fuss, the runway can transform into an escape route for thousands of residents fleeing high waters from a levee failure.

In March, I wrote about the catastrophe that awaits residents of Pocket, Greenhaven, Little Pocket and Land Park if the Sacramento River levee breaks or is overwhelmed by flood waters. As we’ve seen, danger is acute each spring when warm Pacific storms deliver torrents of rain and quickly melt Sierra snowpacks.

As I mentioned, the city publishes maps to show what happens if the levee breaks near Broadway. Escape options disappear fast. Interstate 5 floods from Downtown to Sutterville Road within two hours.

Here’s what happens next. Victims rush toward Highway 99, but struggle to get there. One week after a break, Land Park is 8 to 16 feet underwater. Same with Pocket and Greenhaven. Primary exits routes along Florin, Pocket and Meadowview roads are impassable within 24 to 48 hours.

This nightmare exercise presumes the breach occurs near Broadway. If a break happens 1 or 2 miles down river, problems shift slightly and worsen for Pocket. City maps with a hypothetical break at Little Pocket prove the point.

Which is where Gerald Thomas’ idea comes into play. Executive Airport, elevation 25 feet, spreads across 540 flat acres next to Freeport Boulevard. The airport presents an opportunity to help evacuees on Fruitridge, Florin and Meadowview roads as they flee to Highway 99.

The key is Runway 12/30. The asphalt strip runs diagonally from Freeport and 35th Avenue to 47th Avenue. At the runway’s southern end, 47th Avenue aims straight to Highway 99. Thomas believes paving a short, emergency connection between the runway and 47th Avenue creates a critical passage to Highway 99 and safety.

“Paving it now and holding it in reserve should not upset the powers that be,” he says.

Another emergency link should be built across from the city’s public safety headquarters at the north end of Runway 12/30. Presently, the only ways for the public to enter Executive Airport are driveways at Blair Avenue.

The city owns Executive Airport. The county runs it. They occasionally discuss common problems. Sometimes they blunder into solutions. The feds would have to be involved, but I’d love to hear from anyone who dislikes the idea of incorporating Runway 12/30 into flood evacuation plans.

Maybe this makes too much sense for a city that built its public safety headquarters at the end of a runway. Let’s explore how that happened.

In 2000, the city paid developer Buzz Oates $3.7 million for Crossroads center, a failed shopping mall with a tormented past. Crossroads was site of the 1972 Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour tragedy, where a vintage jet failed on takeoff from Runway 12/30, skidded across Freeport and crashed into the restaurant. Twelve children were among 22 dead.

Crossroads was repaired but cursed. The roof and basement leaked. Walls reeked of mold and mildew. When the city took over, the building needed a new roof and atrium skylights, sealants and waterproofing.

Wrecked mechanical equipment was replaced. A broken water line cost another $60,000. Parking lots were sculpted to push drainage away from, rather than into, the building. The rehab price tag reached almost $20 million. A lot of dough in 2002.

Why bother with this money pit? City Hall figured locating police and fire headquarters on Freeport would inspire a retail rebirth of the neighborhood around the airport. Rebirth still awaits.

Two decades after a bad decision to anchor its public safety HQ at the end of a runway, the city can make a smart move. Build those escape routes and help save the day.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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