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Santa Monica Emergency Personnel Ready Should Strong El Nino Stir Trouble

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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Hector Gonzalez
Special to The Lookout

August 3, 2015 -- Twice so far this summer the City's Office of Emergency Management has had to shut down Santa Monica's beaches because of dangerous weather—one of several precautions officials will take if a strong El Nino batters Southern California's coasts with storm after storm this winter.

Under the general umbrella of the office's “multi-hazard approach” to dealing with emergencies, preparations for severe storms include a specific set of City protocols triggered into action by Los Angeles County's wider emergency notification system, said Lt. Robert Almada, who heads the City's Office of Emergency Management.

“What we will do is go into a mobilization process. Public works goes through and clears all the storm drains, pre-positions equipment, making sure it is in place and ready to go, such as pumpers and dozers and those types of things, in the event it's needed,” said Almada, a Santa Monica Police Department officer.

Firefighters at City fire stations will ready sandbags and sand for beachfront homeowners and residents of vulnerable Pacific Palisades to pick up, “and they also carry sandbags on their rigs,” Almada said, adding both firefighters and police officers “are outfitted with rain gear.”

“We learned a lot of things from the monsoons that came in a couple of years ago about weather-related situations, and we've incorporated those lessons into our multi-hazard plans,” he said.

“But the nice thing about Santa Monica is our FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) analysis said we have no natural flood plains in the City to be concerned with, unlike other jurisdictions,” Almada added.

Weather-related lessons learned won't be put into practice, though, “until we get closer” to fall and winter and it becomes “more determined” that a strong El Nino event is setting up for California, said Almada, whose office is tracking predictions – sometimes conflicting – about how the fickle weather-influencing phenomenon might play out this winter.

“There is a lot more evidence that we will have a stronger El Nino” this year than last year, “when there was a lot of hype” but no rain, State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus said at a news conference last week announcing statewide gains of 27 percent in residential water savings in June.

“However, even a strong El Nino does not guarantee the kind of rain and snow we need to end the drought,” Marcus quickly added. “It could rain more in Southern California, and that's good. But we need rain, and particularly snow, in Northern California, where the reservoirs that folks rely on for a big chunk of their water supplies are.”

A recent drought in Texas, however, was all but quenched by record-breaking rains in May, when the U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map of drought conditions produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed Texas was no longer in “exceptional drought” for the first time since mid-2012.

Storms also have been known to quickly replenish water supplies in California. Heavy snows during the the winter of 1997-98 brought the snow pack “from near (and even below) average in late January to well above in late February,”  for a total statewide average of 165 percent, according to a 1998 status report prepared by the Western Regional Climate Center for FEMA,

Meteorologist Roger Gass of the National Weather Service in San Francisco said computer models from late July showed the  El Nino weather phenomenon intensifying.

Late last month the Weather Channel reported warmer ocean temperatures typically associated with El Nino were above where they were during the “Super El Nino” of 1997-98.

For the state to get higher-than-normal precipitation from a strong El Nino, warmer ocean temperatures and the atmosphere need to combine in such a way that the jet stream is influenced, said Alex Tardy, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

“If the jet stream is consolidated, it’s like one big jet stream pointed like a hose into Central and Southern California,” he said.

But Ronald Kaiser, a water expert at Texas A&M, said in a wired.com article in May that it would take rains even heavier than Texas received in May to stem California's four-year drought.

“If you had rain like this in California, I’d call it a wet drought,” he told the website.

Almada said Santa Monica officials are tracking “other weather anomalies” now developing that also could shape the weather later this year, including “the blob.”

Identified earlier this year, the weather pattern consists of a stubborn ridge of high pressure over the Pacific Northwest coast. This and higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the region have created a “blob” that blocks storms from arriving onshore, according to Nicholas Bond of the University of Washington, who claims to have coined the term.

Some forecasters have suggested “the blob,” if it persists,” could divert any storm energy generated by El Nino this winter away from California and farther north into the Pacific Northwest and above.

“Yes, there is a higher chance of an El Nino, but it's not a certainty,” said Almada. “We tend to take a general approach to planning for hazards. We don't want to plan for one thing, then get caught off-guard by something else.”

Last month, on July 15 and again on July 18, City emergency officials had to suddenly shut down Santa Monica beach after remnants of what started out in Mexico as Hurricane Dolores brought the threat of lightning strikes to the coast. Lightning killed a swimmer last summer at Venice Beach.

While flooding in Pacific Palisades and rockslides onto Pacific Coast Highway “are always a concern” for officials during a storm, City emergency strategists have plans for responding to those problems, as well as for drainage systems, the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility and other critical infrastructure, Almada said.

 “All of those contingencies have been looked at,” said Almada.


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