BRACING FOR 'EL NINO'
OCTOBER 7, 1997
Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports on the tropical Pacific warming, also known as 'El Nino'.
JEFFREY KAYE: Surf's up in Southern California. That's normal. What's unusual is the unseasonably warm water delighting surfers.
SURFER: It's about 70/71 degrees. It's great.
JEFFREY KAYE: The unusual weather has also produced a bonanza for sports fishing. Intense currents have pushed fish normally found hundreds of miles to the South off the Coast of Mexico into American waters.
JEFFREY KAYE: These are what, warm water fish?
DAN SANSOME, Fishing Boat Captain: Warm water fish.
JEFFREY KAYE: What kind of fish are we talking about?
DAN SANSOME: Yellow fin tuna, yellow tail mali mali, and some marlin.
JEFFREY KAYE: Good fishing and comfortable surfing are minor evidence of the powerful global weather pattern known as El Nino. The term is Spanish for the Christ Child, coined centuries ago by Peruvian fishermen to describe a phenomenon they observed around Christmas time every two to seven years. At the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, scientists are tracking this weather system's progress. Tim Barnett is an oceanographer and climatologist. He says data gathered by Scripps and other researchers indicates much of the surface of the tropical Pacific is warming, affecting trade winds and ocean currents.
TIM BARNETT, Scripps Institute: A lot of things happen during an El Nino. The water temperatures along the equator from South America out to the date line, which is a quarter of the way around the Earth, will warm up anywhere from one to in this case six degrees Centigrade near the coast. Sea level will rise off the Coast of South America as it has this year by almost a foot and sea level drops in the Western Pacific by about the same amount. The trade winds weaken, sometimes die, in some cases right now even are reversed in the Western Pacific. So the ocean and the atmosphere are working together in some way that we think we understand it at least a little bit, but the changes in them are remarkable.
JEFFREY KAYE: Barnett says the cause of an El Nino is uncertain but its effect is foreseeable. Scientists say this El Nino may eclipse the worst one this century. That was 15 years ago when storms battered the West Coast of the United States. There were droughts in Australia, Indonesia, and India. Worldwide, 2,000 people died. Economic losses amounted to billions of dollars. Barnett says this El Nino seems to be taking a somewhat predictable course.
TIM BARNETT: For instance, Southern California or the Southwest tends to be wetter, as does the Southeast part of the United States. The Northwest tends to be drier, warmer. Brazil tends to have droughts, particularly Northern Brazil, as does Australia. Those are during normal El Ninos. The probability of those things happening is roughly 70 percent. But we have an event now that we have experienced with only one like it in history, and so it's a little hard to rely on the past because it's not an average situation that we have now.
JEFFREY KAYE: So far this El Nino has brought drought conditions in parts of South and Central America, Southeast Asia, Australia, and South Africa. Its worst effects have been in Indonesia and Borneo, where dry conditions fed raging forest fires that consumed hundreds of thousands of acres. Smoke blanketed the area, causing public health problems and economic losses throughout the region.
SPOKESMAN: Particularly of concern for I think the nations of the world was the southern part of Africa.
JEFFREY KAYE: The United Nations and World Bank have held unprecedented meetings attempting to respond to possible disasters before they strike.
ANNOUNCER: Tracking El Nino's every move--
JEFFREY KAYE: In the United States TV stations are already promoting what they promise will be dramatic weather coverage. El Nino is also prompting disaster preparedness seminars at all levels of government. California coastal communities are bracing for severe storms, clearing out flood control channels, reinforcing piers, and building berms on beaches. Los Angeles Sheriff's Lt. Dennis Beene says if disaster strikes, officials from a number of government agencies will quickly gather at an emergency operations center. Computer models show areas susceptible to flooding.
JEFFREY KAYE: So you've got evacuation routes?
LT. DENNIS BEENE, L.A. Sheriff's Dept.: There are evacuation routes that basically are designated. A number of county fire and public works, we have routes that basically we would use those as primary evacuation routes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Residents of Malibu are also making plans. The coastal city is an epicenter for disasters, with its cycles of summer fires and winter storms. In Malibu, residents simultaneously rebuild from the last catastrophe and prepare for the next. Four years ago Jack Teuffel placed sand bags around his Malibu house to prepare for mudslides. The home survived. Recently, he placed more sand bags in anticipation of an El Nino-generated storm. In Malibu preparedness is not just a question of survival; it's a matter of law and politics. Teuffel and his neighbors are suing the city, claiming that bad planning left them vulnerable to fires and mudslides. Their lawyer is Richard Norton.
JEFFREY KAYE: Will El Nino bring a flood of lawsuits?
RICHARD NORTON, Attorney: Probably, yes, because storms like El Nino happen--this El Nino--have happened five or maybe ten times this century. And history tells us, yes, there will be lots of failures; people will lose their homes; governments will try to look the other way; and there will be lawsuits.
JEFFREY KAYE: Which is where you come in.
RICHARD NORTON: That's what I've done for my career, yes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lawyers are not the only ones who see opportunity in El Nino. Insurance agent Mark Ball says he is writing three times as many flood insurance policies than last year. Roofing contractors are also benefitting from public apprehension. Steve Harrer's Malibu business got started in the last big El Nino.
STEVE HARRER, Roofing Contractor: El Nino has started the business, and what it's doing in this year of '97 is it's probably bringing threefold the business that a normal year would otherwise bring.
JEFFREY KAYE: Opportunity is also knocking in commodities futures trading.
SPOKESMAN: I'm sure you saw all this stuff about El Nino.
JEFFREY KAYE: Worldwide markets are being disrupted. Unusual weather is threatening production of Indian vegetable oil, South African wheat, Australian corn, Brazilian cocoa, West African coffee, and more. Reduced supply means higher prices. But despite the indicators some weather forecasters are hedging their bets, at least as far as California is concerned. They say--anyone who pays attention to forecasts can attest the weatherman or woman doesn't always get it right.
TIM BARNETT: But the probability is the dice have been loaded--towards those kinds of scenarios and those kinds of situations. That doesn't mean that every time you throw 'em it's going to come up that way, but the dice are loaded.
JEFFREY KAYE: And because they are, says Barnett, planners should prepare for calamity but shouldn't be surprised if the worst doesn't happen.