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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California
Southern California

Historic El Niño; From Devastation to Preparation

Could the predicted El Niño be just as bad, or worse than the historic El Niño of 1997? Eytan Wallace reports.

In 1997, Southern California experienced its worst ever El Niño event on record. Now, fears are growing that a similar, or even stronger El Niño may hit the region this winter.

According to filmmaker and researcher Sean Mahoney, an El Niño is “a big pocket of warm water [in the ocean] that dictates weather patterns and brings basically a highway for storms to come rolling in over California.”

The El Niño of 1997 caused tremendous damage and is blamed for the deaths of 17 people.

One of the hardest hit areas during 1997 El Niño was Malibu, where high surf and flooding destroyed bridges and swallowed up beachside homes.

Many residents’ lives were changed forever that season, and many of them still deal with the aftermath today.

Malibu resident Les Steinmetz, who had previously lost his home to a 1993 wildfire, lost his home again during the 1997 El Niño when torrential rains brought down the unstable cliff beneath it.  He was forced to rebuild for a second time.

“I was driving on the pacific coast highway, and someone called me and said your house is on CNN. It was the biggest slide in 40 years. It was terrible.”

Many like Steinmetz believe a strong El Niño could cause great damage to an unprepared Southern California.

But the Los Angeles Fire Department says it is already geared up for all possibilities. 

“We’ve got swift water teams that we deploy almost every time we have a rainstorm,” said Captain Daniel Curry, adding that the LAFD “plans accordingly” for the rainfall and “looks at a daily forecast every afternoon.” 

While scientists don’t know for sure, a new satellite image recently released by NASA reveals a growing El Niño pattern in the Pacific Ocean, one that could potentially become stronger than the El Niño of 1997.

As a result, many NASA scientists believe there is at least a 50 percent chance that the upcoming winter could be one of the wettest ever recorded in Southern California. 

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