Water & Drought

FEMA readies for El Niño disasters

A firefighter with Los Angeles County checks for hot spots along Highway 26 in Mokelumne Hill during the Butte fire in September, which denuded 71,000 acres and burned 475 homes. Mudslides and flash floods are the main concerns in counties hit hard by wildfires this fall as they find themselves racing against time to clean debris and shore up hillsides as winter rains set in.
A firefighter with Los Angeles County checks for hot spots along Highway 26 in Mokelumne Hill during the Butte fire in September, which denuded 71,000 acres and burned 475 homes. Mudslides and flash floods are the main concerns in counties hit hard by wildfires this fall as they find themselves racing against time to clean debris and shore up hillsides as winter rains set in. lsterling@sacbee.com

A federal emergency response plan to be released Wednesday lays out a series of worst-case scenarios in California that could result from this winter’s predicted El Niño. Among the biggest threats, according to the report: widespread flooding in the Sacramento Valley; and mudslides in areas damaged by this year’s devastating wildfires.

The 56-page plan provides guidelines to help federal, state and local leaders cope with these and other disasters that could result from the heavy rains that accompany El Niño conditions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies will test aspects of those plans in Sacramento Wednesday during a series of tabletop exercises.

El Niño is a phenomenon linked to above-average water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. It often brings heavy rains to Southern California. This year’s El Niño is particularly strong, and forecasters say that parts of Northern California also stand a good chance of seeing above-average rainfall.

Past strong El Niño years have brought extensive flooding and other weather-related problems, said Bob Fenton, administrator for FEMA Region IX, which includes California.

“People are taking the threat seriously,” he said.

FEMA and others are most concerned about potential flooding, Fenton said. The state’s extended drought has created space in reservoirs to alleviate some risk, but tributaries could still face problems, particularly in flat expanses such as the Sacramento Valley. Dry, hardened soil is less likely to soak up moisture from rain, creating excessive runoff. Also, several levees throughout the Sacramento Valley are considered “critical and serious points of interest” that have a significant chance of failure during the next high water mark.

“All it takes is one levee to fail, compounding events to occur, for flooding to happen,” Fenton said.

FEMA’s new plan lays out several steps for federal, state and local officials to take if El Niño leads to problems. Those steps range from using a central hub for monitoring a potential crisis to deploying emergency management teams to critical sites. The plan includes guidelines for coordinating search, rescue and evacuation efforts.

“The table top (Wednesday) will give us a chance to test drive the plan,” Fenton said. “We want to make sure that we have pre-thought everything through and cut down time to adequately respond to needs.”

California residents can help, Fenton said, by formulating an evacuation plan in case of flooding or other disaster. “Individuals who are able to take care of themselves allow us to focus on those who need help,” he said.

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

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