The Return of El Nino
“A little popcorn never hurt anything.”
So said actress Dyan Cannon as her waterfront Malibu home got hammered by a 1982 storm. The culprit was the now notorious El Niño, a disruptive weather pattern that has a history of hitting California hard.
When seawater was flooding her beach home, Cannon, an actress known for her roles in “Heaven Can Wait” and “The Return of the Pink Panther,” didn’t run for safety. She reached for the popcorn and munched away.
Her famous neighbors weren’t so lucky. Both Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing in “Dallas” and Lee Majors, better known as Colonel Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” had beach homes that were damaged by the storm. It was not clear if they used popcorn as a coping mechanism.
Not every Californian today has a beach home, of course, but that doesn’t mean El Niño isn’t a threat across the Golden State, Washington and elsewhere. Over the last 30 years, El Niño has caused mudslides, power outages, and flash floods—totaling billions of dollars in damages.
“The Christ Child”
So what exactly is El Niño? First discovered off the coast of Peru during Christmastime in the late 1800s by Paita sailors, it is a weather pattern that every two-to-seven years causes uncharacteristically warm temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific off South America. Surprised by such tepid seas, the Paita sailors nicknamed it “El Niño,” or “The Christ Child,” in honor of the holiday.
Future El Niños were hardly the stuff of Christmas cheer, however. The weather pattern sets off a veritable chain reaction. Parts of the United States get drenched with heavy flooding on the one hand. On the other, Australians suffer through severe droughts and brush fires. The El Niño of 1982-83, for instance, led to 2,100 deaths, while the El Niño of 1997-98 caused over $2 billion in damages.
Now with a new El Niño likely to hit soon, how should Americans prepare? Sure, have some popcorn ready just in case, but homeowners and renters alike can take real concrete steps to prepare. Here’s a quick checklist.
1. Landslides—Know What to Look For
Unfortunately, in most places, you cannot insure against landslides and mudslides (except in Oregon and Washington State, where a policy can run you $1,000 or so annually). So what to do? If you live in a place like Pacifica, California—take the lead from the United States Geological Survey’s recommendations and keep an eye out for:
- New cracks or unusual bulges appearing in sidewalks or street pavements
- Doors or windows that are suddenly jamming for the first time
- Soil that is moving away from its foundations in the backyards of homes
2. Home Protection
Homeowners and renters should also consider:
- Installing flexible pipe-fittings to help prevent gas and water leaks
- Building retaining walls to hold soil that is on a steep slope
- Shutting off natural gas, water, and electricity in the home
- Arranging for a surveyor to conduct a ground assessment of the property for risk of erosion and landslides
- Create a family communications plan (like placing contact information on cards for each member of the family), store water and food, subscribe to alert services, and draw floor plans of homes to mark escape routes
For more information on landslides contact the National Landslide Information Center.
3. Flood Insurance
In 1968 Congress created The National Flood Insurance Program in an effort to help homeowners and renters get insurance that would cover losses due to floods. Homeowners and renters alike should take advantage of this program—or be prepared to shell out. Between 2008 and 2012, the average residential flood claim was more than $38,000, according to the National Flood Insurance Program. In some cases, homeowners are required to purchase flood insurance; but, where it isn’t a requirement, here are some facts to keep in mind:
- Homeowners living in moderate-to-low risk areas can buy coverage that starts at $129 and can provide up to $20,000 for the building and $8,000 for its contents.
- Renters can pay as low as a $57 annual premium that will provide them $8,000 in coverage for their possessions.
- The only option for those living in high-risk areas is to buy a standard rated policy. These insurance premiums are based on the year the house was built and the flood zone it’s located in, among other factors.
- Get flood insurance as soon as you can. It can take over 30 days to go into effect.
Visit www.floodsmart.gov for more details.
This year’s El Niño may not be all that bad
One climatologist believes that it may not be all doom and gloom for areas that have been hard-hit by El Niño in the past.
“The only thing I would say is that [it will be] wetter than normal across the southern tier of states, drier across the Pacific Northwest, [and] not much of an impact by the upper Northeast,” said Dr. Michael Dettinger, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and research associate of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Of course, that doesn’t mean high-risk areas have nothing to fear or that all experts agree.
“[In California] it doesn’t take much rain to cause a mudslide or flooding downstream of areas that have been burned by this summer’s fires, so homeowners in those areas should monitor the weather closely and have a well-planned evacuation route,” said Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas State Climatologist and a professor at Texas A&M University.
Fire-scarred areas in Washington State will be “exceptionally vulnerable to flooding and mudslides,” added Nielsen-Gammon. “It only takes one intense storm to create a lot of damage.”
As for the Lone Star State, “the rain hits Texas in the fall, and homeowners should take advantage of the moisture in the soil to catch up on their landscaping projects, especially when it involves trees and shrubs, ahead of a potentially hot 2015,” said Nielsen-Gammon.
In other words, be prepared.