El Nino Grande
"Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." -- Charles Dudley, 1897Scientists are predicting the wettest winter in a half-century, based on El Nino conditions more extreme even than in 1982-83, which was dubbed by some experts "the mother of all El Ninos."That was the winter that wreaked havoc throughout the state of California, from a rare tornado that touched down in downtown Los Angeles and ripped the roof off the L.A. Convention Center to the four piers severely damaged in one day in San Luis Obispo County to widespread flooding throughout Northern California.Yet rather than preparing for the worst, most people and public agencies around the state are virtually ignoring the dire predictions of forecasters.Needed flood control projects are still meandering their way through cumbersome approval processes. It's business as usual for emergency response agencies. Home owners aren't buying flood insurance. Unstable coastal bluffs in populated areas are being left to the sea's mercy. Dammed lakes will be kept at normal levels, even at seismically unstable Lopez Dam. Major advances in the scientific community's ability to predict severe winters, especially following El Nino conditions, are apparently having little impact on our state of preparedness. El NinoIt causes heavy winter rains from California down to Peru and droughts in Indonesia, Africa, and Australia, all at the same time. It is our most accurate long range predictor of the weather, and a reminder that our planet is fragile and inter-connected.Scientists call it El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a combination of the ancient label for warm waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and a calming or even reversal of the region's easterly trade winds.Long ago, Peruvians along their northwestern coast noticed that every few years, there was a warming of the ocean. Because it usually began in December, the phenomenon was named "the child" in honor of Jesus Christ's birthday.Scientists later discovered that the El Nino effect was related to a seesawing pressure pattern between Australia and Tahiti which impacts the trade winds, and ultimately the water temperature in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific.ENSOs of varying strengths occur every three to seven years, although the current warm event is our fourth ENSO of the '90s.But what's happening in the Pacific right now is far more intense and much earlier in the year than anything scientists have seen. The waters off of Southern California and Mexico are now more than 6 degrees Celsius above normal in some places. Most El Ninos warm the water only be a few degrees."We're at record levels," said Ron Lynn, an oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, which is charged with gathering some El Nino data. "I haven't seen anomalies this big."Neither has John Rawley, who has been leading fishing expeditions out of Morro Bay for Virg's Sportfishing since 1970. He began catching albacore in May this year. This warm water fish doesn't usually arrive here until August. The earliest Rawley has seen it was in June, and that was during the 1982-83 El Nino. Early last month, the Pacific tradewinds actually reversed into a strong westerly wind. The last time that happened was during the ENSO event in November of 1982. "This is the strongest we've seen in the last few decades. It has all the signs of creating a wet winter for California," said Miguel Miller, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. "It's so strong and so early, there is no precedent for us to go on. So we don't know if it means extremely bad weather or not."He said the early ENSO could mean not only a wet winter, but an early one. Scientists are a bit baffled by the current ENSO, but they believe that when El Nino is kicking, the rains follow."We do know that when there is an El Nino, San Luis Obispo is likely to get above average rainfall," Miller said.That certainty is strong in the south and gets weaker further north. Miller said that in San Diego and Los Angeles, eight of the last eight El Ninos have been followed by wetter than normal winters. In San Francisco, it is six of eight, and way up in Eureka, just four of eight El Ninos have led to harsh winters.Huug van den Dool, chief of the predictions branch of the National Climate Prediction Center, said strong ENSO conditions and other climate data gathered from satellites point to a wet winter for California.There are more resources than ever before devoted to analyzing ENSOs, largely because of the devastation from the 1982-83 event, an ENSO that was difficult to study because the atmosphere was dirtied by a volcanic eruption in Mexico."This is the first time we have a big warm event well analyzed in real time and well forecast," van den Dool said. "People should pay close attention to these forecasts."Business As UsualIf people are paying attention, it isn't translating into action."It doesn't enhance our planning, but it does get our attention," said Ron Alsop, the emergency services coordinator for the San Luis Obispo County Office of Emergency Services. "There's really not a lot we can do."Before every winter, OES offices in each county in the state serve as clearinghouses for weather information and make sure there is enough equipment in the area to deal with floods. Often that means working with the National Guard and state OES to move resources into the region.But Alsop said those resources are not being beefed up beyond normal levels this year."The only time we do enhanced planning is when there are specific threats," he said.For example, going into the winter after 1994's Highway 41 Fire, creeks in the area were cleared and extra drainage ditches were built in anticipation of increased runoff from the denuded hillsides.Alsop said it is up to individual cities and special districts to make sure they are ready to handle heavy rains by stocking up on sandbags, taking care of flood control projects, and beefing up staffing for emergency crews. But the cities and special districts aren't doing anything differently either. Officials from San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Cambria, (all areas hit hard by flooding in past years) and San Luis Obispo County say they are not doing anything extra in anticipation of a harsh winter."It seems like we're kind of at Mother Nature's whim. We just have to take it," said Cambria Fire Chief Curt Hatton. "It's a flood prone area, so there's not much we can do."County Engineer George Gibson said the county was hit with a rash of telephone calls and letters from concerned citizens after the El Nino was publicized a couple weeks ago."But there's not much we can do," he said.In Pismo Beach, city-commissioned studies have shown that some streets and parks -- particularly along Ocean Boulevard in Shell Beach, Price Street near Shelter Cove, and Cypress Street -- could erode into the sea with a series of severe winter storms.Yet even with early El Nino predictions, none of these long-identified projects are being undertaken."The kind of projects that would provide bluff protection are major in scope and cost, but the city is trying to get out of debt," said Dennis Delzeit, the city's public works director. "We don't have any funding for preventive types of projects.""We will prepare as we usually do for winter rainstorms," Delzeit said.Another potentially hazardous situation not being altered in anticipation of a wet winter is the level of dammed lakes around the state, including Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande.Because of concerns that the dam would break in a major earthquake, unleashing a massive flood that would drown all of the communities around Pismo Beach, the California Division of Safety of Dams requires that the lake be kept no higher than the 510-foot level on the 520-foot-high dam. That reduces pressure on the dam.In anticipation of winter rains, that agency each year requires the county to lower the lake level down to the 503-foot mark by Dec. 1. That is supposed to allow for normal winter rains, and still keep the lake below the 510-foot mark.But last year, early rains raised the lake well beyond the safe level. In fact, the dam actually spilled over the top on Jan. 24, and even with a dry February and March, open flood gates still took until the end of April to get Lopez back to the 510-foot mark.Nonetheless, state and county officials don't plan to lower the lake below 503-feet in anticipation of heavy rain."We haven't let it influence us at this time, because we're already very conservative," said Vernon Persson, chief of the California Division of Safety of Dams."The concern for Lopez is a large earthquake, and we consider that to be a rare event. And the heavy rains are a rare event, and we don't couple those two," Persson said.Individuals also appear to be taking a fatalistic approach to El Nino. Neither agents selling flood insurance nor roofing companies fixing leaky roofs nor grading companies that do flood prevention have reported any El Nino related surges of customers.Farmer's Insurance agent William Morley of Cambria even tried to alert his clients to the need for flood insurance with postcards warning "El Nino is coming!," but he has yet to sell a single flood insurance policy to someone not required by the lender to have it."Even after the flood in Cambria (in 1995), I only sold two (flood insurance) policies," said Duane Dague, an Allstate Insurance agent in San Luis Obispo.Dague said one of his clients in Santa Margarita had a flooded house two years in a row, each time causing almost $10,000 in damage, but he still refuses to buy flood insurance that costs $750 per year. For most homes, flood insurance costs about $500 per year, Dague said."People won't buy it unless it's required by the lender," he said. West End Bar & Grill in Cambria's West Village was required to have flood insurance, and the owners say they are one a only a couple Cambria businesses to have flood insurance, despite the fact that the entire downtown ended up under four feet of water in 1995.Owner Joani Kemp says she's not worried about El Nino. "Anyone would be concerned after going through a flood, but I think that was a once in a lifetime event," she said. "Hopefully we'll be OK this year. We'll just keep our fingers crossed and say our prayers." Still WaitingIronically, it is Mother Nature herself that has made Cambria and similar communities around the state better prepared for heavy rains than in the past.The 1995 rains that overflowed Santa Rosa Creek and flooded downtown Cambria had the affect of making that channel wider, deeper, and free of vegetation, thus able to handle heavy water flows.That will have to be good enough for Cambria, because the community learned this week in a letter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it will have to jump through a few more bureaucratic hoops before receiving $1.4 million for a major flood control project. Right now, FEMA is processing $50 million in disaster mitigation money from the 1995 flooding that caused most counties in California to be declared disaster areas.Once a disaster area has been declared by the president, FEMA sets aside 15 percent of the total federal disaster relief funding for mitigation projects to prevent future damage. It is part of a three-year-old push initiated by FEMA Director James Lee Witt to better prepare communities for disasters.The state receives applications for the grant money, then decides which projects deserve to be funded and passes those applications on to FEMA, which also reviews them and makes a final determination.Angela Kucherenko, a deputy hazard mitigation officer for FEMA, said the Cambria project and other like it are needed, but it needs to be more carefully studied and planned before FEMA will award the money, which will require a 25 percent local funding match."We can't know whether we can fund this until we know what they want to do," she said.Kucherenko admitted that El Nino has added a sense of urgency to her job, but reviewing the 600 applications submitted by California communities after the 1995 floods takes a long time. One small culvert project in Northern California is the only one of 41 projects that qualified for this funding that is likely to be built before this winter, she said."We try to avoid the whole nightmare of going through another disaster," she said. "But there is a process these projects must go through."Preparing for DisastersThe first step in preparing people for a winter of heavy rains is getting people to actually believe it's true, and that's not an easy task given the nature of weather prediction.If your friendly neighborhood weather man is right four times out of five during the rainy season, then he's doing a pretty good job, even if the wet woman who left her umbrella at home doesn't agree.With long term weather prediction, where it's not just a matter of checking the barometer and watching for forming storms, everything is passed on probabilities, likelihoods, and hypotheses.Even with startlingly strong El Nino activity, forecasters are still qualifying their predictions."There is some certainty, but not a lot," was how Miller rated his prediction of a wet winter.Many of the area officials and residents interviewed for this article voiced skepticism about the El Nino predictions, and that certainly has an impact on preparations."I suppose it depends on whether they believe the forecasts, and you can destroy your credibility with one bad forecast," said van den Dool of the Climate Prediction Center.In fact, that may have happened with the recent El Ninos. They were weak and not sustained, yet the scientific community still told the public they were happening. And when the winter wasn't harsh, people began to doubt El Nino as a predictor."We had lots of flaky El Ninos during the '90s, so those forecasts were fairly wishy-washy," van den Dool said. "But this is a big one. We have this one in the bag." "If the general public and emergency offices are not well-prepared now, then they should get prepared," Miller said.At the bare minimum, people should stock their homes with emergency provisions (water, canned foods, First Aid kits, flashlights with fresh batteries, etc.) and develop a plan for what family members will do in the event of a natural disaster.Property owners should also consider undertaking needed flood control and drainage projects, and as winter approaches, make sure all drainage points are free of obstructions.FEMA also recommends people move all valuables out of basements and off floors, have the main breaker or fuse box in your home above anticipated flood levels, and buy flood insurance."The general public needs to educate themselves about how to prepare for this," Miller said. "If the El Nino isn't too destructive, then it's been a blessing in disguise in getting people read for this."SIDEBAR:We've all heard that El Nino/Southern Oscillation drastically alters weather patterns around the world, bringing wet weather to California. But how exactly does it work?In normal years, strong and steady trade winds blow east to west across the Pacific Ocean near the equator. As these winds travel along the sea surface, they push warm surface water from off the South American coast.The displaced warm water is replaced by cooler, nutrient rich water, an ideal condition for the anchovy populations off of Peru, which as a big part of that country's economy.Meanwhile, as the warm swells reach Micronesia and Indonesia, the water has warmed about 7 degrees Farenheit and the sea level has risen by about three feet.But every few years during an ENSO event, that warm water sloshes back east in a huge, slow wave, unimpeded by relaxed or even reversed trade winds, a product of a flip flopping of the pressure patterns in Tahiti and Australia.The pooling of warm water, whether it be in the eastern Pacific during normal years or western Pacific during ENSO years, creates rising warm, wet air, creating clouds and rain.So during ENSO events, Indonesia, Africa, and Australia get droughts instead of monsoons, and we in California get their rain.