Citing a worrying El Nino storm pattern this winter that could rival 1997-98's flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Wednesday released a 66-page Severe El Nino Disaster Response plan in the event of a disaster in California and other western states.
The "Executive Decision Support Guide: Region IX El Nino Event" report was developed to guide planning and responses by federal teams, which would spring into place after local and state resources are depleted. While much of the report is written for emergency-response management, the document does highlight the agency's predictions for California, Nevada and Arizona.
"There is substantial risk in Northern California due to potential levee failures. These risks are derived from the two strongest El Nino winters, 1997-98 and 1982-83," the report noted.
The worry about levees is notable for Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. The levee at San Francisquito Creek in East Palo Alto was damaged during a lesser El Nino event in December 2012. That storm caused the volatile creek to overflow its banks in spots along Woodland Avenue in East Palo Alto as well as downstream east of U.S. Highway 101, flooding the Gardens neighborhood.
The swollen creek also caused storm drains to back up onto Palo Alto streets, and that was in a relatively dry El Nino year, officials noted. The National Weather Service predicts this winter will be wet, in line with 1997-98, the strongest El Nino on record.
Coupled with high-tide events that will take place during December and January, local officials are concerned. And soils hardened by the drought could create significant runoff in valley and urban areas.
"From a meteorological standpoint, this is the greater concern for flooding this upcoming season," FEMA noted.
Locally, officials have the added burden of potentially managing a flood during the Super Bowl in February, which will bring thousands of out-of-towners to the Midpeninsula. It is also when one of the highest tides of the winter will occur, Kenneth Dueker, Palo Alto's director of the Office of Emergency Services, said.
Officials are also bracing for the holidays, when the highest tides will occur Dec. 20-27, according to the California Coastal Commission. Combined with wind and heavy rainfall, sea levels could rise up to one foot in many areas, putting multiple medical facilities, schools, power plants, airports, fire stations and hazardous waste sites and wastewater-treatment plants at risk, along with nearly 189,000 people statewide, according to FEMA.
California remains the most vulnerable to weather-related disaster declarations out of 10 localities in the FEMA Region IX, which includes Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa and other areas. The state accounted for 190 events out of 407 or 47 percent for the region between 1953 and 2012, according to FEMA.
Flooding caused 52 percent of the disasters in California among all weather-related events. In El Nino years, 53 percent of disasters were due to flooding. But that number can be deceiving, according to FEMA. Golden Gate Weather Service data shows that there is little correlation between the strength of El Nino and storm damage. In neutral years, flooding caused 55 percent of disasters. But the 1997-98 El Nino increased rainfall 320 percent statewide on average in February alone. The rains were persistent, heavy and often accompanied by high winds. Back-to-back storms left little time for recovery, causing significant mudslides and erosion, according to the report.
The result was an estimated $883 million in damage statewide, with 17 storm-related deaths. Forty counties were declared federal disaster areas, according to the report.
This year, FEMA is using the 1982-83 El Nino year as its planning model. That season resulted in $1.2 billion in economic losses, 36 dead and 481 injured. Lessons learned from the catastrophe helped to reduce damages in 1997-98, largely due to timed releases of water from reservoirs, according to FEMA.
The agency has developed a three-phase, five-stage response once there is an elevated threat from the storms, to cover everything from alternative transportation to evacuation, shelter, food and rebuilding. But FEMA would not come in until local mayors and governors issue an emergency declaration, which could then trigger a federal emergency, officials said during a telephone press conference Wednesday. FEMA also has not dedicated any advance funding for an emergency response, an official said during the press conference. Instead, it will "prioritize resources" it already has.
But Dueker said Palo Alto is better prepared than during the 1997-98 flooding. It has a regional agreement with East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Santa Clara Valley Water District, the San Fracisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority, Stanford University and Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for mutual aid in the event of a disaster in any of the communities.
"We are more prepared in this storm season than in any in my career here, which started in the 1990s," he said.
But there are limits. While Palo Alto will do all that it can, the public expectation should not be that the city can do everything, he cautioned. Dueker said he hopes that people will take seriously recommendations to look out for their neighbors and themselves.
"It's not because government is trying to punt or weasel out of a job. There are a lot of ambiguities," he said. "There is not a computer screen with a smiley face and a frownie face" to tell officials when something will absolutely occur, he said.
While creek gauges now give responders and residents a 90- to 120-minute warning before flood levels might hit the Pope-Chaucer bridge (which spans San Francisquito Creek), there are no predictive systems for soil saturation or landslides, power outages, traffic snarls, sewage leaks or public health issues. And even the best science available is largely subject to human interpretation, he said.
Residents can help by staying informed, reporting potential or ongoing problems and helping elderly neighbors and those with disabilities, Dueker added.
The city has a robust storms web page, www.cityofpaloalto.org/storms, which includes links to a storm map, creek monitor and emergency contacts. The site also has a link to the new JPA flood early warning system, which can also be found at floodwarning.sfcjpa.org/.
Palo Alto will also have a sandbag giveaway on Dec. 13, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. or until they are all gone, at the Municipal Services Center, 3201 East Bayshore Road. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to help load the bags into vehicles for those in need of assistance, Dueker said.