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How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of El Niño?

Here in Los Angeles, rain can be scary.

by Mike Pearl
Oct 22 2015, 10:00pm

A flood in Australia, via Wikimedia Commons user Beao

There are usually only two types of weather in Los Angeles: It's either "nice," or "one degree off of nice and everyone's freaking out about it." For the most part, that's all you need to know. But then Angelenos found out that the normally icy Pacific Ocean had become a roiling jacuzzi. West Coast natives knew that could only mean one thing: ¡El Niño!

In short, El Niño is a name for a wet winter weather along the Pacific Coast of the Americas every few years. In my experience, each severe El Niño comes with some warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS), and a lot of fruitless conversations about sandbags. I thought the biggest hazard I was in for would be my own inability to get through one lousy day without losing my umbrella.

But that changed when a friend of mine who just moved temporarily to Los Angeles from the East Coast told me he had to reassure his mom that he'd be safe from the horrors of an El Niño winter. I thought El Niño was a little bit of a joke, but after reading some of the scarier coverage, her fears seemed at least a little justified.

It seemed like a good time to settle the matter: How worried should I actually be about the nasty weather phenomenon that strikes my city every couple of years, and is named after Baby Jesus?

The 2015-2016 pattern, dubbed "Godzilla El Niño" by the Los Angeles Times, has been hyped as more powerful than previous El Niño seasons. According to Mike Halpert, director of the NWS Climate Prediction Center, "there will be a number of significant storms that will bring heavy rains." What that brings, Halpert told the LA Times, "will be floods and mudslides," which means I might actually have to check Yelp for good sandbag retailers this winter.

Here in LA, it's normal to cross the entire sprawling metro area in a single morning commute—so if there are hazards, the city's fair-weather drivers will often be forced to navigate them. But flooding and mudslides in neighboring cities appear to have already claimed the life of one Californian on the road this year. And the cash-strapped City of LA isn't particularly great at installing and maintaining useful little infrastructure things like culverts (ask a friend from Southern California if they even know what the word "culvert" means). Bearing in mind that the Great El Niño of 1997-1998 killed 17 people in California, it seems like there's cause for concern.

Any given El Niño winter starts off innocently enough, with warmer than average waters off the coast of Peru. If you imagine the shape of northwestern South America as a butt, the telltale El Niño warming pattern looks like someone lit its fart on fire. Stanford meteorologist and influential weather blogger Daniel Swain told me that waters as far north as Alaska are weirdly warm this year. "The Pacific's on fire right now," Swain said. So far, though, the effect has just been a shit ton of humidity.

"There is not a one-to-one correlation between tropical warming and California precipitation. The reality is much more complicated than that," Swain said, explaining that heavy rain is not guaranteed. Although he conceded that "California's wettest winters have typically co-occurred with its strongest El Niño events," adding that rainfall for those years was nearly twice the average.

In other words, it's safe to assume a hard rain is coming—but science works in probabilities not certainties. The question is, what should we be doing about it?

"We have plans in LA for pretty much anything that can happen, from flooding to mudslides," Chris Ipsen, a public information officer the city's Emergency Management Department assured me when we talked this week. I pressed him about whether my Silverlake street might be prone to mudslides. "That area's soil has pretty solid rock under there," Ipsen said. "From what I understand, I haven't heard of those kinds of issues. That's not to say it won't happen."

Malibu mudslide from a non-El Niño year. Image via FEMA / Wikimedia Commons

The neighborhood does get the occasional mudslide, but its generally just the kind that causes property damage, rather than horrific mud drownings. Even in areas like Malibu, which has seen at least two mudslide-related deaths, and houses were seemingly designed to slide into the sea, residents like Whoopi Goldberg still typically make it out alive.

A major priority Ipsen brought up was "keeping the storm drains clear of anything that might obstruct our flood control." The storm drain system can apparently be of life-or-death significance—but mostly for people who aren't me. The people who will be affected, Ipsen said, are the ones living in homeless encampments along the LA River. The wet season has barely started, and already we've begun to see a familiar piece of El Nino imagery: footage of people in the LA River, that concrete trench from Terminator 2,struggling to stay afloat in fast-moving floodwaters, and being airlifted out by fire department rescue crews.

"What we're hoping to do now is to identify exactly where they're at, and map it," Ipsen said. And he's got his work cut out for him. Recently, Los Angeles declared a state of emergency because of the record numbers of homeless people living in the city.

"We'd actually like to be proactive, and have a process in place so that we're able to notify these populations, and hopefully find somewhere to go, and provide services that they require," Ipsen added. A plan for putting the homeless in rain shelters has been announced, but Los Angeles County officials have criticized the outreach component for requiring homeless people to check a website. Also, the $100 million city officials have loudly promised to spend on addressing the homelessness crisis hasn't yet been officially approved by the city council.

Of course, El Niño is mostly good news for California. "Obviously," Ipsen said, "we want to see the water." After four years of devastating drought, California is so thirsty, it can't wait to gorge itself on rain. Here in Los Angeles, though, I'll realistically just be inconvenienced by a couple of flooded intersections—which I'm pretty sure I'll survive.

But as Swain points out, I'm not being mindful of El Niño's effects globally. It seems mine isn't even the real story when it comes to El Niño. The weather pattern comes with a much higher body count in other parts of the world. After all, it was Latin America—probably Peru—that gave the weather pattern its name, and with good reason: The storms there are more intense, and the effects can be downright tragic.

In 1998, flooding in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico during an El Niño winter killed 14 people; a local police officer described it as being "like an avalanche that came at us from all sides." That was after an El-Niño-related hurricane further south in Acapulco killed 118 people. Storms in Peru that same winter killed 300 people, and left about 230,000 more homeless.

Swain also pointed out that "El Niño-related warming of the ocean surface can actually influence the large-scale storm track over the Pacific," which means its effects can be felt beyond North and South America, and are usually more unpleasant than some heavy rain. In Australia, for instance, El Niño is associated with harsh droughts. And in Pakistan, 1,150 people died this past summer in a record-breaking heatwave tied to the atmospheric effects of El Niño. Some areas there have seen temperatures rise up to 113 degrees, and the resulting power shortages have led to civil unrest.

So am I personally scared? Not really. My time might be better spent fearing the mosquitoes that result from all that extra standing water, or worrying about the way the heavy rains might interrupt the food supplies of local species. Or, I might look into charities in Pakistan.

But there is still that potential for flooding and mudslides, which does scare me a little since I live on a hill. Ipsen advised me to sign up for location-specific emergency updates from NotifyLA.org. "That's for, let's say, imminent danger. We only pull the trigger when it's something really imminent," he said. It's a pat on the head, but one that actually does ease my fears a little.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of El Niño?

2/5: Taking Normal Precautions

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