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Wrath Of El Nino West Coast Braces For Phenomenon Some Believe Is Linked To Global Warming

Wed., Oct. 15, 1997

The winds have yet to blow. The rain has yet to pour. But this fall, the threat of a powerful wallop from El Nino hangs like a rare storm cloud over the perpetually sunny skies of Southern California.

Constant publicity about the unpredictable worldwide weather phenomenon has brought big business to West Coast insurance agents, who are writing out flood insurance policies by the thousands every day.

It’s also been a boon for politicians, who have been quick to position themselves as defenders against the deluge.

Tuesday, Vice President Gore and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt joined a panel of politicians, business leaders and local officials at an El Nino Community Preparedness Summit - on a day when the ocean breeze was balmy and the temperature was in the 90s.

Gore, who brought his own graphs to explain the phenomenon in detail to an audience of about 400, said this year’s El Nino may well be worse than the one in 1982-83, during which storms caused $2 billion in damage and killed 160 people in the West.

“Some are even calling it in advance the climate event of the century,” Gore said, adding some think the phenomenon is linked to global warming. “We’re here with you, and we’re not waiting for the landing. We’re here on the takeoff.”

Last week, California Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, held his own El Nino conference in Sacramento, pledging $7.5 million to help the state prepare. But Tuesday’s summit, sponsored by FEMA, was the brainchild of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat.

As politician after politician spoke of the possibility of torrential rains, huge waves and massive floods and of how they would do everything in their power to protect West Coast citizens, the calmest voice on the panel came from its lone scientist - Ants Leetmaa, Ph.D., who directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Climate Prediction Center.

He said this year’s El Nino could well bring storms like those of 1982-83, hitting the West Coast hardest in the first three months of next year.

Boxer said the key was not to wait to see what happens but to prepare. “We’re going to be ready for whatever hits us,” she said.

She urged West Coast residents to call a toll-free FEMA number to find out about flood insurance. She told them to clean gutters, check windows and talk to their children about what can happen in disasters. She also urged the federal government to set up a “one-stop shop” so communities could get all the preparation aid they need without calling agency after agency in frustration.

“We’ve got to change the way we deal with disasters, or we are doomed to pay for our poor planning with lost lives and lost property over and over and over again,” Witt said.

Most of the three-hour summit was given over to speeches from panel members. But for about an hour, the invited community leaders got a chance to voice concerns.

Witt said the cooperative spirit of the conference was “creating a model, laying a foundation for a new approach to disaster relief and emergency management.”

But one panel member, Pat MacNeil of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness in Topanga, Calif., said her disaster-frequented community - which has already staged its own El Nino drill, complete with closed roads and pretend victims - has learned not to count on any outside help in a crisis. The community has its own emergency headquarters, run by volunteers, as well as a network of ham radio operators on hand to pass along information.

“We can’t wait for the government,” she said. “We have to learn to depend on ourselves.”

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