Forecasters say El Niño is finally here, and it looks big
We were promised Godzilla, and Godzilla we just might get. The potential “Godzilla El Niño,” as it’s been called, which Californians have awaited for months with a mix of excitement and dread, is just now arriving. This week’s rains showering Santa Cruz are El Niño-related, according to the National Weather Service—and it shows no signs of slowing. Locals, who after years of drought had all but forgotten what rainy days are like, are now dusting off their raincoats and stomping through puddles.
The Sierra Snowpack is now listed at 36 percent higher than average, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources, although it’s too early to say whether or not the drought will actually end this year.
A news release from NASA on Dec. 29 shows a striking resemblance between satellite images of this growing El Niño and a similar El Niño system from December 1997—an El Niño that rocked the globe and is considered the worst on record. In between severe droughts in Southeast Asia and flooding, it resulted in 23,000 deaths worldwide and more than $10 billion in damage in the United States alone. It also caused unprecedented damage to the world’s coral reef systems.
In a way, it feels odd that people would be so worried about rain in a town that in its long history has weathered major natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. Since Santa Cruz’s most recent substantial floods in 1983, the city initiated a Levee Improvement Project and installed new levee pumps to prevent water from spilling out of the San Lorenzo River.
Still, much of the city is in the floodplain for 100-year floods, according to FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps, which show that downtown Santa Cruz, the area around the San Lorenzo River and the beach area are all at risk. Farther south, the neighborhoods near Soquel Creek, Pajaro River, Corralitos Creek and Salsipuedes Creek are also all considered at risk.
With a serious downpour, pump stations and other facilities can flood, forcing officials to get water from the Loch Lomond Reservoir instead of local streams and rivers. Each storm provides its own set of unforeseen challenges.
One possible red flag this time around is that four years of dry weather has led to a build-up of fallen trees and debris that hasn’t washed down the San Lorenzo. In past years, heavy rains following a dry spell left a mess of branches and huge tree trunks all over the river mouth and Main Beach. “We’re hoping that doesn’t occur again,” Parks Superintendent Mauro Garcia says, adding that they have trimmed and cleaned up as many trees as they could.
Those logs can get trapped under the wharf, Garcia says. “The weight actually moves like a battering ram back and forth and has the potential to—and has in the past—removed the piles,” he says.
Divers will be standing by to remove them from under the wharf and prevent them from doing any damage.
An eight-page brochure on the city’s public works website has tips for El Niño preparation and procedures, some of them more obvious than others.
The brochure recommends that people have an evacuation plan and know a safe route to higher ground in case there’s a flood. And they should leave early enough to avoid being marooned by flooded roads, which they should try to avoid and drive around if possible. Residents should keep a disaster survival kit and have it ready to go. Household hazardous materials should be stored indoors to keep them out of the runoff water.
Sandbags can be picked up from the city’s Fire Administration Office on Walnut Avenue or from a city corporate yard office located at 1125 River St., Ste. A. Citizens can fill up their bags with free sand from Harvey West Park.
“We’ve been giving out so many sandbags,” says emergency services manager Paul Horvat. At one disaster preparedness workshop alone, Horvat says they gave out 1,500.
Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jim Frawley asked each department to appoint a contact person and a backup contact person in case of emergency this winter. Much of the work in mitigating El Niño has been preventive, like cleaning catchment basins and trimming vegetation. And at an October City Council meeting presentation, Frawley, who moved from Southern California this past April, lauded the city’s disaster preparedness.
Garcia says that the rains have left the ground moist and saturated with water—which can loosen the roots of trees and leave them susceptible to getting knocked over by large gusts of wind. Additionally, the drought has weakened many tree limbs, and they may come falling down in big storm events, something city officials are ready for—even if they don’t want to see it happen. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Garcia says.
For more information, visit cityofsantacruz.com or santacruzcounty.us. The city of Santa Cruz will be holding an El Niño Storm Preparedness Workshop from 6-8 p.m, Thursday, Jan. 7, at the Beach Flats Community Center, 133 Leibrandt Ave., Santa Cruz.
SHORE ENOUGH During major storm events, waves can wash large tree logs ashore and damage the wharf. PHOTO: ALEKZ LONDOS