Southern California Prepares for El Niño

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At a recent town hall meeting in the San Bernardino County community of Chino, residents packed an auditorium to hear from local, state and federal officials about the need to get ready for a very wet winter because of predicted El Niño storms.

“The bottom line is El Niño is here,” said Alex Tardy, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s record-breaking already. If it sustains itself, it will be the strongest on record. And this will be a winter that really tests us because we have not seen ingredients like this line up in the past.”

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Community forum in Chino, California about how to prepare for coming El Niño storms. Various officials were present to take questions about the weather phenomenon and practical issues, like where to get sandbags and how to sign up for flood insurance. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Chino Resident Jim Gallagher came to the forum with his wife Cathy. They pride themselves on being ready for anything Mother Nature throws their way, and they want to make sure that includes El Niño storms.

“We have always been prepared for any type of disaster, especially earthquakes,” said Jim. “We have earthquake insurance. We stock up on extra water. We have extra food supplies in case that’s needed. But we are concerned about all the projections about this current storm. I want to find out more information. Do we have to get sandbags, for example? Or do we have to get flood insurance? I want that information. I want to know.”

That need to know is understandable when you consider that the last big El Niño storms to strike California in the winter of 1997 and 1998 killed 17 people and caused over a half-billion dollars in damage. In addition, a record 35 counties in the state were declared disaster areas.

Speaking to the audience at the El Niño forum, Chino fire chief Tim Shackelford recounted the toll those storms took on his community. They included flooding, roof collapses, car accidents, downed trees and power outages.

“Really, to sum it, at times it was overwhelming from an emergency response standpoint,” said Shackelford. “We were overwhelmed with the sheer call volume, more calls than resources available to respond to them.”

To make sure Southern California is prepared for coming El Niño storms, public agencies across the region are beefing up defenses. In the foothill community of Altadena that work involves equipment and workers deepening a 35-foot deep, football field-sized catch basin. One of many in the county, the basin is designed to capture water, mud and rocks that could wash down from the San Gabriel Mountains during big storms and threaten neighborhoods in Altadena and Pasadena.

“It’s probably one of the first lines of defense in my opinion,” said Ron Driggs, a construction superintendent with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. “This is kind of where it starts right here, because a lot of time it can really rain harder than what downstream can handle, so that’s what these are there for, to provide that protection in those storms when we have a lot of rain and a lot of debris coming in.”

County of Los Angeles crews and equipment deepen a storm catch basin in the foothill community of Altadena. The basin is designed to capture water and debris during heavy storms so they don’t flow into surrounding residential and commercial neighborhoods. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Another work force that’s preparing for coming El Niño storms is Southern California roofing contractors, some of whom say they’re getting run ragged with demands from customers to repair roofs before big rains arrive.

“We’re packed. We’re packed. I mean it’s insane,” said Jose Cruz, a roofing contractor who’s been rushing from job to job between Los Angeles and San Diego. “We’re getting customers screaming at us all the time that they want their roof done.”

Cruz said that at this point last year, he and his crews were working on two or three jobs, now he’s juggling 60 to 70 roof repair projects at any one time.

But if and when heavy rains do start falling, those in greatest peril won’t be people with roofs over their heads, no matter how leaky, it will be the population of homeless people who live in or near the region’s network of flood control channels, including the Los Angeles River. These people could literally be washed away as heavy runoff gets redirected into the storm water system.

To warn the homeless about the dangers of El Niño and rising waters, local law enforcement and social service agencies have started reaching out to the homeless with special patrols.

At the bottom of the steep concrete banks that encases the L.A. River as it flows near downtown Los Angeles, we met Will Anderson. He said he’s camped along the waterway for years because it’s more peaceful and safer than nearby Skid Row. Anderson knows the now placid river could turn ugly if big storms come, but he said he’ll be ready.

“If the water gets outrageous, I’m not going to be here,” said Anderson.

Anderson said he has a plan to move himself and his belongings to a tunnel further up the river embankment and wait out the rains.

Seen here at the bottom of the L.A. River, Will Anderson is one of the people who regularly camp in Southern California’s flood control system. Officials say they’re the ones most endangered when big storms strike. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

To protect people who don’t beat rising flood waters, there’s another kind of El Niño preparation underway. Thirty-six search and rescue specialists in Los Angeles County are training for swift water rescue operations this winter.

For more information about how to prepare for El Niño storms, please visit the websites below. And stay tuned to additional KCRW coverage about the topic.