Preparing for El Nino

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Water breaching a Balboa Island seawall in 2010. — Photo courtesy of city of Newport Beach ©
Water breaching a Balboa Island seawall in 2010.
— Photo courtesy of city of Newport Beach ©

Are you ready for El Nino?

The city of Newport Beach is prepared for whatever size El Nino that mother nature brings, but as important as it is for the city to anticipate possible floods, landslides, erosion, overtopping of the islands, tree and branch falls, blowing sand, ponding and hydroplaning, as well as staff and equipment needs, Public Works Director David Webb feels that getting the message out to the city’s residents asking that they perform their own advanced preparation and safety review is as critical to planning as anything that the city can do.

Should El Nino downpours gift Newport and the Southland with abundance of badly needed rains, Webb warns that it probably won’t mean the end of our drought, and that all residents should “keep conserving water.”

Much of the hoped-for rains will become rapid runoff, “which might fill the reservoirs, but may do little for the water table,” Webb said.

Southern California depends on copious Sierra snowfall that melts gradually throughout Spring, Summer and Fall, and in the process replenishes the state’s water supplies.

“An El Nino is a warming of the ocean surface or above average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean plus easterly winds that weaken or turn westerly,” Webb explained in a recent presentation to the city council.

With El Nino conditions now present, “there’s a greater than 95 percent chance that the phenomenon will last through the winter into 2016, and about an 85 percent chance it will persist into early spring,” he explained.

Although most citizens excitedly expect rains, a “strong El Nino pattern does not guarantee local rainfall will be substantially above normal,” Webb cautioned.  Storms may move north or east and miss Newport with their full onslaught. A weak El Nino year may dump more rain than a recorded strong El Nino year. Nature in her unpredictability is the ultimate architect.

In terms of flooding, Webb’s major concern is the confluence of rain, high tide levels and windstorm surge.  With enough advanced warning, the city can prepare for street and property flooding and overtopping of low seawalls by closing tide valves on the islands and low spots on the peninsula, and deploying berms, sandbags and portable pumps.

Newport has been proactive in its preparations, Webb said. Staff and contracted services have inspected and cleaned 3.2 miles of storm and pipelines and channels, and inspected and cleaned more than 3,250 catch basins or storm drain structures plus 16,500 feet of open v-ditches.

They’ve purchased additional water pumps, sealed areas of leaking on public seawalls and bulkheads and inspected and maintained all 87 tidal valves.

City workers have pruned 1,800 palm trees, ordered additional sandbags for city and limited community distribution, and tarped and sandbagged public slopes. Teams on bulldozers are prepared to create sand berms at select beaches if necessary, or build up the ones already in place.

Inspectors also have visited both public and private project and construction sites to ensure erosion control and pollution prevention measures are in place.

The public at large generally is unaware of the work the city does to both maintain infrastructure and prepare for storms. A few of those responsibilities include inspection and maintenance of traffic control systems, traffic signals and hanging traffic signs; contacting mooring occupants to check on and replace anchoring systems if necessary; perform roof repairs of city facilities and meeting with outside agencies to make sure that their facilities are in readiness.

Webb recently sent a letter to all city homeowners’ associations, advising them of the pending El Nino conditions, and what they and their members can do to protect their environments.

Newport Beach is doing what it can to be prepared for a possible winter storm season, Webb said, underscoring that there may be unexpected occurrences that might call upon immediate and creative responses to handle. But citywide, citizens can rest assured that first responders and city workers, particularly Municipal Operations staff, are well prepared to meet El Nino’s many challenges.

Now the question of the season is: Are you prepared?

Citizens should greet El Nino knowing that they, too, have done everything possible to weather potential storms. To that end, Newport Beach has posted life-and-property saving information on the city website: newportbeachca.gov/elnino.

Webb makes the following recommendations:

Pre-season preparation: Assess storm or flood risk for your property.  Purchase sandbags, either filled or prefilled, and have them ready as needed. Update family plans and emergency preparedness kits. Review, update or purchase flood insurance policies. And sign up with Nixle, AlertOC, the City’s Facebook, Twitter and eNews.

Also, know where utility shutoffs are. Schedule weather-related home repairs now, such as roof and window repairs. Trim trees and remove excess growth. Clean gutters and align downspouts.  Install surge protectors on sensitive electrical equipment.

During the storm: Avoid areas subject to flooding. Use 911 for emergencies only. Respect barricade signs and authorities. Do not drive over flooded roads. Keep your distance from downed power lines.

Additionally, listen for and/or watch flood reports and instructions. Evacuate immediately if told to do so by authorities. Turn off utilities at main switches or valves if instructed to do so. Check in and look after children, elderly persons, those with disabilities and pets.

As Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Probably less memorable, but just as valid: “a 30-pound sandbag may keep your home insurance premiums down post-El Nino.”

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