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El Niño Is Coming: Learn How to Prepare Your City and Access Emergency Funding

Eastward-propagating oceanic Kelvin waves. Sea surface temperature anomalies. It sounds like dialogue from a disaster movie. But this is no fiction. It’s all part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) latest climate update (as of November 9), which raises the probability of an El Niño slamming the Northern Hemisphere this winter to a staggering 95 percent. Along with the certainty comes size. Experts are saying this will be one of the largest El Niños to hit in over three decades. In fact, the San Diego City Council on Monday, November 16 unanimously declared a state of emergency because of anticipated El Niño rain conditions.

So what’s a public agency to do that’s tasked with protecting lives and property?

In this post, I’d like to step back and examine the situation, and then offer some advice for both pre- and post-emergency preparedness.

The plain facts about floodplains

I’ve spent my career working on watersheds, and the lesson I’ve learned about floodplains is a simple one: leave them alone. Unfortunately, people have been building on them, rather indiscriminately, for centuries. This wasn’t regulated in the U.S. until 1968, with the advent of the National Flood Insurance Program, which sought to protect against hurricanes, tropical storms and heavy rains.

But Mother Nature doesn’t care about laws: She’s content to dump rain wherever she likes. So it’s our job to prepare our floodplains, and our communities, for the coming onslaught. Here, then, is a multi-pronged approach to help you face the coming El Niño with confidence.

Add maintenance to your advanced planning 

Some communities already have emergency operations centers in place and conduct preparedness drills. That’s fantastic. Other communities may lack the resources of their better-funded brethren, but that’s no reason to be unprepared.

You’d be amazed at the power of regular maintenance. It often seems like something that can be allowed to lapse, but doing so can come back to haunt you when the rains of El Niño come pouring in.

Prioritize even the most basic road and bridge maintenance. Make time now to clear out storm drains. Here in California, we have to deal with something that most people don’t associate with flooding—and that’s wildfires. When they strike in the hot season, they can clog storm drains with debris, or strain flood-control channels already choked with vegetation. These are problems that can be tended to right now, with big payoffs later.  

Prepare for plans to go south  

I’ve heard they have a saying in the military, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. So no matter how much you prepare, you’ll still need to confront the unexpected. When disaster strikes, you’ll need to assess and prioritize in real time.

Is a crucial road about to fail? Have hydraulic impacts put a bridge in peril? Be ready to leap in and determine the best and most efficient solution to repair and restore essential infrastructure, while protecting people and property. You most likely won’t have the luxury of time, so try to anticipate a few scenarios and reactions to each.

Get help—there's plenty

The federal government offers a host of Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant programs to assist with disaster prevention efforts (while shouldering up to 75 percent of the costs). When disaster does strike, the President can direct FEMA to loosen its purse strings. Still, the dollars don’t flow as freely as the floodwaters. You can be hip-deep in paperwork and still fall short of funding requirements.

This is when you can count on another kind of help. On-call professionals can offer the experience and expertise you need to navigate the meticulous bureaucratic shoals and expedite relief funding. Our team at Harris brings extensive experience following post-flood disaster assessments throughout California. We can incorporate several high-tech solutions, including drones to fully assess and photograph otherwise inaccessible sites. We use tablets that incorporate the FEMA Project Worksheet forms to complete our assessment on-site and provide critical information instantaneously with a web-based tracker.

How are you planning for El Niño? We can all benefit from exchanging insights before the floodwaters rise. Share your ideas or questions below.  


Alex Yescas, PE, CFM, ENV SP

Alex Yescas has honed his skills directing dozens of flood control capital improvement projects throughout California and Nevada. Over the past 12 years, he has performed analyses on more than 10,000 stream miles in California alone. A recognized leader in floodplain and stormwater management, including simple and complex scour assessments of bridges and streambanks. Alex also serves on the board of directors of the Floodplain Management Association.

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