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Monday, Feb 6, 2023

El Niño Could Bring Too Much of a Good Thing: Rain

Meteorologists around the world are warning of a possible record-setting El Niño weather pattern this winter that could bring intense rain and flooding to Southern California, directly threatening nearly 5,000 San Diego businesses.

A report this month from the National University System Institute for Policy Research found 4,798 businesses are in 100-year flood zones, and 54,560 residents live in vulnerable areas. The two most recent serious El Niño winters in 1983 and 1998 caused $2.04 billion and $804 million in economic losses statewide, respectively, though the report did not specify how much local damage occurred.

Plan for a Deluge

Business owners would be wise to plan for a deluge, according to NUSIPR senior policy analyst Vince Vasquez, including making sure they have ways to communicate with customers during stormy weather and preparing infrastructure for heavy rainfall.

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“If you close your doors, it’s lost income,” he said.

El Niño occurs when winds over the Pacific Ocean change their usual pattern near the equator, spreading warm water. The rising ocean surface temperature can cause significant weather changes worldwide, typically leading to more rain in the southern U.S., eastern Africa and parts of South America, and dry weather in Australia, Southeast Asia and India.

Economic Impact

Vasquez said the economic impact of the winter storms falls into two categories: physical damage and indirect effects on industries such as tourism and agriculture. But even data suggesting this year’s storm could be the most severe in decades, along with past damage reports, is not enough to make conclusive predictions about this year, Vasquez said.

“It’s simply unknown,” Vasquez said. “We have a very small sample size in terms of past El Niño wet winters and what they can do to the local economy. There are only so many tea leaves we can read.”

Meteorologists are fairly certain, however, there will be an El Niño this winter and believe it will be strong. The National Weather Service said there is a 95 percent chance current El Niño conditions will continue through the Northern Hemisphere this winter, and the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization said it could be one of the strongest El Niños since 1950.

Current sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are either the warmest or third warmest of all time, depending on the data source, a good indicator of a strong El Niño, according to meteorologist Dan Leonard. He works for WSI, the business consulting arm of The Weather Co., which owns The Weather Channel.

‘Super El Niño’?

“Once you get into that range, you’re talking about a super El Niño,” he said.

Leonard cautioned, however, that the strongest El Niño event does not necessarily mean San Diego will experience the most intense winter weather conditions. Other factors, such as warm water off the California coast extending up to Alaska, could mitigate El Niño’s impact.

The last two major El Niños caused widespread sea cliff erosion, damaged the Mission Beach boardwalk and closed sections of Interstate 101. The California Coastal Commission reported 23 permits for emergency repairs in the wake of 1998’s El Niño, including one for $700,000 worth of damage to Oceanside Harbor and $1.6 million worth of damage in Del Mar.

Just as important are the potential effects on businesses throughout the county, even if they’re unlikely to be directly damaged by the storm. California retail sales dropped 3 percent to 5 percent in 1998 and tourism fell 30 percent, according to WSI.

Vasquez, the NUSIPR researcher, said retail sales are especially sensitive in San Diego because so many major shopping centers are outdoors. Even tepid rainfall can cause locals to shy away from restaurants, bars and tourist attractions.

“There are very few places countywide, with the exception of downtown and Balboa Park, where you can spend hours indoors,” Vasquez said. “Our vacation market is also the drive market, with lots of people coming on a day’s notice. They’re able to cancel their plans in response to El Niño.”

El Niño can also impact crop yields, with heavy rains potentially increasing pests, disease and root rot. Vasquez said the hilly terrain helps with drainage, making the added water less of an issue for farmers and a potential short-term money saver because there will be less of a need to buy water for irrigation this winter. More concerning than the rain are El Niño winds, which can knock fruit off trees, flatten crops and wreck greenhouses.

“There’s probably more instability and worry globally from El Niño, which can still affect San Diego through temporary price increases,” Vasquez said. “You could call that an El Niño tax.”

4,798 Businesses in 100-Year Flood Zones

What does it take for an area to be susceptible to flooding? The Federal Emergency Management Agency creates maps detailing flood risk based on the idea of a 100-year flood. That’s a flood strong enough that there’s only a 1 percent chance it will occur any given year — or statistically, a flood that will occur once every hundred years. But multiple 100-year floods per century are possible, just as a quarter can land on heads twice in a row, even if heads should only come up half of the time on average.

The areas vulnerable to those intense storms are 100-year flood zones. Or, as researcher Vince Vasquez puts it: “Anytime we have anything resembling measurable rainfall, these are the places where puddles emerge.”


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