Back when a city desk was my workplace, my colleagues and I would exchange knowing glances each year as firefighters solemnly announced their predictions for the upcoming fire season.
It was never good news.
If it had been a dry year, they would warn us that the brush could explode into a conflagration of Old Testament proportions. If we had experienced a wet year, we were cautioned that all that rain had caused more brush to grow, raising the specter of even worse fires.
It seemed like we couldn’t win at the weather game.
I was reminded of that when we were told a powerful El Nino condition this year could mean our parched little corner of the world could get good and wet.
Drought-weary residents are so overjoyed at the prospect that they’re dancing on their artificial lawns and toasting each other with overflowing glasses full of tap water.
But El Nino is not always a good boy. And his appearance should be viewed with caution and cynicism.
As we have seen already this year, heavy downpours cause damage. Mudslides and flooding have already occurred and if this is indeed the climatological Big One, as many predict, it could be far worse.
Our very own Bill Patzert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena said recently, “This is not a puny El Nino but a Godzilla El Nino.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen “Godzilla” but if memory serves, the legendary monster trashed half the Pacific Rim.
Just to refresh our memories, this is how the last big El Nino event was reported in 1998:
“A big storm, driven by El Nino and expected for months, hit California with driving rain and hurricane-force winds yesterday, sending thousands fleeing to high ground…
“Eighteen-foot waves threatened beach homes in Southern California and winds up to 80 miles an hour uprooted trees and left thousands of people without power. A falling tree killed one person in Northern California.
“High waves in Southern California battered piers and eroded the dunes that protect beachfront homes. Santa Barbara County got some of the heaviest rain, with more than 13 inches since Sunday. Waves over 30 feet high were reported at Pacifica, south of San Francisco.
“Interstate 80, a main link for communities between San Francisco and Sacramento, was closed by flooding, and Interstate 5, California's main north-south freeway, was blocked in several spots.
“Amtrak canceled all north-south trains from San Diego to Seattle because of flooded tracks.”
February 1998 remains the wettest February on record in downtown Los Angeles with a total of 13.68 inches. That is more rain than Los Angeles has registered since January 2014.
It was the best of times for roofers, contractors, tow truck operators and umbrella manufacturers.
It was the worst of times for many others. It caused $35 billion in damage worldwide, and 23,000 people died – from wildfires in drought-stricken Indonesia and Australia to catastrophic flooding and mudslides in Ecuador and Peru.
But let’s look on the sunny side, so to speak. El Nino means the end of the drought, right?
Probably not. According to one report, the state needs a very wet winter just to get soil moisture back to near-normal levels, and a good deal more than that to bring California’s reservoirs and groundwater close to their long-term average.
"It takes years to get into a drought of this severity, and it will likely take many more big storms, and years, to crawl out of it," said NASA’s Jay Famiglietti.
The lesson here is that we need to continue drought-mitigation policies so we don’t spend the rest of our lives in the don’t flush, don’t shower, rip out the grass mode that we find ourselves in today. The worse thing we can do is to decide that El Nino will end our need to conserve.
And then there’s the prospect that El Nino could become El Foldo.
Tony Barnston, lead El Nino forecaster at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, cautioned that while El Nino has predictable effects and this one is strong, what happens next is not exactly certain.
Take the much-anticipated wet 2014-15 winter. It fizzled.
JPL’s Patzert explained it this way to colleague Steve Scauzillo:
“The El Niño had a very promising, dramatic surge in January, February and March, but now as we enter summer, all of a sudden it is disappearing. The great wet hope is going to be the great wet disappointment.”
Best advice? Be prepared for anything.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.