SF City Hall Prepares to Prepare for El Niño

By Kat Calloway

Government forecasters predict a strong El Niño this winter. El Niño is a weather phenomenon characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. Consequences are increased rainfall across the southern tier of the US and in Peru, strong enough to have caused destructive flooding, and drought in the West Pacific.

El Niño means “The Little Boy” in Spanish. This name was used in reference to the Christ child due to the tendency of this weather phenomenon to arrive around Christmas. The phenomenon was originally recognized by fisherman off the coast of South America as early, some believe, as 1525. This year, the storms, should they materialize, will begin soon.

El Niño only occurs every four to five years or so. El Niño as a physical occurrence is a proven fact. The way it works is a theory (actually several different theories). Once an El Niño has started, we have reasonably good skill in predicting the subsequent evolution over the next six to nine months, but before it has started we have very little skill in predicting the onset before the event has become obvious.

The US Climate Prediction Center released its monthly report November 19, 2015. It shows a 95% likelihood of the El Niño weather pattern hitting California, with above-average precipitation across much of the state.

In short, the San Francisco Bay area will most likely have a very rainy winter and spring. Forecasters say it could be one of the strongest occurrences of El Niño in the past 65 years, and could linger into late spring. This could bring a great increase to San Francisco’s annual average rainfall of 23.65 inches.

If this El Niño develops into a moderate to strong event, then the Bay Area will most likely (it’s nature at work, there are few certainties) get above normal precipitation. This is because during a moderate to strong El Niño, the jet stream along which winter storms tend to move is displaced to the south. So instead of all those storms that we usually see hitting the Pacific Northwest, what would happen is that this storm area will shift southward and produce above normal precipitation for most of California. Even though San Francisco will likely get higher than normal rainfall totals during a strong El Niño, East Bay locations like Oakland and Vallejo will probably get the strongest influence due to the orientation of the Coast Range.

El Niño is not itself a storm. El Niño will not guarantee significant rain or snow for the upcoming winter. El Niño can change the storm track, increasing our chances for stormy weather this winter. El Niño refers to the warming of the Ocean’s waters that affects the storm track.

The waters in the equatorial Pacific have been warming all year, indicating there may be a strong El Niño impact.

El Niño has an 80% chance of lasting into early spring 2016, according to the updated forecast by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA also reported that there is a greater than 90% chance of El Niño lasting through the upcoming winter.

The declaration that El Niño is likely to last into spring is important for the United States since precipitation and temperature impacts from a moderate-to-strong El Niño are typically most noticeable during the colder months.

The potential impact of the El Niño weather conditions requires preparation to protect property and persons. Homeless people, facing the cold, the wet and the flooding head-on, most often with the aid only of a blanket or bedroll, are particularly vulnerable.

“Sandbag Saturdays are just one way the City is preparing for wet and windy winter storms,” said Mayor Ed Lee. “It’s important for our residents to be prepared and plan ahead to protect their homes during the possible El Niño storms, and I have directed all our City departments to work together to make sure the City is ready. Let’s all be prepared.” Public Works and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are teaming up this month to host two “Sandbag Saturdays” to prepare residents for the winter rainy season.

The sandbags are intended to protect properties prone to flooding. People must show proof of San Francisco residency to receive them. This is the Mayor’s first line of defense against El Niño: Protect the buildings, minimize the cost impact.

In San Francisco, officials are also discussing how to contend with possible street closures if there is extensive rain or street flooding during the Super Bowl in February. “As we move forward with Super Bowl planning, this is one of the things we’ve put out to various departments and entities,” said Rob Dudgeon, Deputy Director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. “What if it has been raining really hard?

Don’t inconvenience the tourists. The concerns are valid, but the priorities are backwards.

“What if it has been raining three or four days?”

What if you have been out in the rain, wet and cold for three or four days and nights?

The City has the following recommendations posted at SFDEM.org.

“Above all SFDEM encourages you to do five things:

  1. Make a Plan
  2. Gather Emergency Supplies
  3. Register for AlertSF.org
  4. Learn the difference between 3-1-1 and 9-1-1
  5. Follow us on social media

Further, on December 10, 2015, the City is sponsoring an event titled “El Niño 2015–16: What’s Ahead and Winter Weather Preparedness.” The event will address:

What’s in store for the upcoming season

Best practices for severe weather notification

How to mitigate El Niño and winter storm damage

There is talk of a tent city for those outside, but there is no evidence of it on the City’s websites. The Mayor’s plans for protecting his constituency that most desperately needs his help remain under wraps.

Meanwhile, homeless people are continuing to deal with the Mayor’s plan to have all homeless folks removed by the Super Bowl, resulting in constant police harassment, moves at one or two in the morning so that unutilized alleyways can be sanitized and sprayed, and worst of all, a society with norms that tolerate and even promote the stigmatization and isolation of poor people.

Next issue, we’ll unveil the Mayor’s plans concerning homelessness during El Niño.