Keep Calm, Be Prepared, and El Niño On

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By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

El Niño – it means the child or the Christ Child in Spanish. However, the name is a terrible contradiction. El Niño conjures the image of a beautiful, cherubic baby. It is certainly not that. One climatologist describes this weather phenomenon as, “mudslides in Los Angeles and golfing in Minneapolis. And there can be a lot of chaos in between.”

Well, what is an El Niño? An El Niño is a warming of the Equatorial Pacific waters. Fishermen in South America gave it the name El Niño because the waters would get warm around Christmas time and the fish would disappear. These days, everybody seems to be talking about it. You can’t pick up a paper or turn on the news without seeing a story. In fact, as I was writing this, an old friend at CBS was doing a piece on it for Sunday Morning. Clearly, El Niño is already a headline maker, and it hasn’t yet kicked into full throttle.

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California has likened this one to one of the all-time greatest monsters, “It’s truly the Godzilla El Niño,” Patzert told me. If it is not the most powerful yet, he believes it soon will be based on the satellite images and data he’s analyzing. And, this El Niño may have played a role in the recent deadly tornadoes in the South and the short sleeve and shorts winter weather in the Northeast.

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So why so much interest now? In a word: worry. Really intense El Niño events seem to take place about every 15 years give or take: 1982-83, 1997-98, which is the strongest to date. They have profound impacts on the weather, flooding and mudslides in California; wet, turbulent weather in Texas and along the Gulf Coast; and warm conditions in the Northeast. “So all the pieces on the weather board are rearranged and there’s a lot of volatility not just in the U.S. but across the planet,” according to Patzert.

That volatility left 42 people dead and 260 injured in Central Florida in February 1998. Seven tornadoes touched down overnight during the worst outbreak ever in the state.

Is that or something similar going to happen again? No one knows because as Mike Halpert says, “No two El Niño’s are alike.”

Halpert is Deputy Director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.  The scientists there measure El Niño’s strength not only by the ocean’s heat but how the atmosphere is reacting to it.  Halpert said, “What we think is really more important isn’t what the ocean does, it’s what the atmosphere overlying the ocean does because, that’s what kicks off the rest of the impacts globally.”

So far, Harpert says, this El Niño is weaker in the atmosphere than the two previous big El Niño events.  Does that mean the impacts will be less severe? Possibly but, there’s no way to know. Why?  Halpert says there just isn’t enough of an El Niño sample size.  He added, “We don’t have good data that goes back thousands of years. I mean we haven’t seen that many of these kinds of things.”

Frankly, it really does not matter where this occurrence of El Niño lands in the power rankings. It’s all about when the dust settles, how bad was it? We’ve already seen the first glimpses. And even though the sample size is small, there’s enough historical data, scientists say, to tell us we need to be prepared.

There’s still time to get prepared, but don’t put it off any longer. Start by making sure you have a NOAA weather radio, plus a smartphone app like FLASH Weather Alerts that includes “follow me” technology and text-to-speech alerting. You can select alerts for all the different weather hazards, including flood, freeze, and tornadoes.

If you know your area is prone to flooding or mudslides, remember “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”, and never cross a flooded roadway. Keep sandbags on hand, and make sure you have up-to-date flood insurance. Do you have emergency supplies on hand including bottled water? You need to! Have you taken a recent inventory of everything you own? If not, do it now. If you are in a tornado threat area, consider installing a tornado safe room or shelter, but make sure it is either built using FEMA 320 or the ICC 500 standard.

For the U.S., the big “worry” months have just arrived. “Beginning in January and February”, Patzert told me, “we should see a convoy of storms coming straight out of the Western Pacific slamming into California and Southwest Texas and these storms actually get pumped up as they go over the Northern Gulf of Mexico and some of the worst damage may be in Florida.”

For all the misery El Niño can dish out, there are a couple plusses. Scientists say it won’t end the drought in California but it should make a dent, and a warm winter saves the U.S. billions in heating costs.

The experts believe this El Niño will likely last into the late spring and could linger into early summer. What comes next? Halpert says, “It’s a good bet that when this El Niño ends the next thing we have will be a La Niña.” During a La Niña, the waters in the Pacific cool off, and the weather patterns change. Where El Niño events put a lid on Atlantic Hurricanes, La Niña’s are like muscle milk to Atlantic storms! Hurricane Season could become interesting.

Related Links

Flash Weather Alerts App – Mobilize Your Weather Radio

How to Protect Your Home from Flood Damage

Jet Propulsion Lab

“Turn Around, Don’t Drown

Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You?

All Hail…Spring is Time for Impact-Resistant Roofing

By Terry Sheridan, FLASH consumer writer

There’s no mistaking it. When you hear what sounds like golf balls cascading on your roof during a storm, it means hail. Hail can pit, dent, and shred your roof. But it doesn’t have to. So here’s a homeowner tip—consider an impact-resistant roof.

Hail is no small matter. It causes about $1 billion dollars in damage to crops and property each year, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2013, there were 5,457 major hail storms nationwide, with most occurring in May, June, and July. Texas had the largest number of major hail storms, followed by Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

Impact-resistant roofs are typically asphalt or metal roofing materials. But, these types of roofs can also be made to appear like wood or slate—thanks to materials like concrete, plastic, recycled rubber, or molded polymer that can be fashioned to look like the real thing.

The added impact-resistant roof protection is more expensive, but costs vary nationwide and by material. In Texas, for example, an asphalt impact-resistant roof can cost about $30 more per square foot—$1,200 for your average 4000-square foot roof, says John Hadden, loss mitigation coordinator for State Farm Insurance Company in Texas (State Farm is a FLASH Legacy Partner).

You’ll want either Class 3 or Class 4 roof material that meets the UL 2218 or FM 4473 test standards. Here’s why that’s important. Class 4 roof material has been tested to withstand the impact of a 2-inch diameter steel ball, simulating hail of a similar size and density, with no damage or fracture to the shingle. Class 3 roof material can withstand 1.75-inch steel ball.

Keep in mind, too, that “impact-resistant” doesn’t mean hail only. It also includes high winds and flying debris.

There’s another reason a Class 3 or 4 roof is important to you—it can save you money on your insurance premium. This varies by where you live and what kinds of weather and natural disaster losses your area faces. But, generally, discounts (that average around 15 percent) or can range from 1 percent to 29 percent, Hadden says.

Premium discounts last the lifetime of the roof—which varies by the type of material—and are transferable to another owner if you sell the house. The economics work well because the upgraded roof pays for itself over time.

Finally, keep in mind that not all roofing contractors who arrive in your neighborhood after a storm are reputable. Some will come seeking to sell impact-resistant roofs to homeowners, but these fraudsters won’t put on an impact-resistant roof, even if they charge for one. They’ll install a cheaper one instead and bill the insurers for the more expensive material.

So, homeowners should be on alert for these types of practices, and take steps to avoid fraud. Ask for references, and be sure to check them. Ask for proof of insurance, and never pay upfront before installations. Verify the roofing shingle products that the contractor is installing are the ones YOU ordered. Check the shingle package label and keep a copy for your records.

Remember, your roof doesn’t have to be damaged by hail. Consider an impact-resistant roof and be ready for hail, golf balls, or whatever comes your way.

Black Friday Winter Preparedness Gift Ideas from FLASH

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With families experiencing colder-than-normal temperatures already during the month of November and with freezing temperatures over the Thanksgiving holiday, the FLASH team suggests adding a few winter safety items to your Black Friday shopping list.

There’s no better gift than one that offers your loved ones safety and protection and even has the potential to save their lives. FLASH developed a comprehensive list of winter-weather preparedness gift-giving ideas that can protect friends’ and families’ homes and ensure their safety.

Winter storms from coast to coast are redefining this year’s must-have gift list. Here are suggested gifts that provide Comfort and Security as well as Home Mitigation:

Comfort & Security

  • AM/FM radios w/extra batteries
  • Automobile power inverters
  • Blankets
  • Carbon monoxide detectors
  • First-aid kits
  • Hand-crank powered appliances such as cell phone chargers, power supplies, radios and weather radio
  • Cell phone battery pack or case
  • LED flash lights w/extra batteries
  • FLASH Weather Alerts app
  • Power generators
    • Portable gasoline-powered generators
    • Permanent LP or natural gas standby generators
    • Solar-powered backpack to charge laptops, tablets, music players and other portable devices

Home Mitigation

  • Attic insulation
  • Insulated doors
  • Insulated faucet domes
  • Storm doors
  • Portable generators
  • Standby generators
  • Gift certificates for professional home inspections
  • Gift certificates for professional winterization services
  • Insulation for hose bibs, exposed plumbing, pool equipment
  • Weather stripping
  • Replacement windows

For a complete list of tips on how to stay safe and comfortable during power outages, click here. For more tips and resources on winter safety visit www.greatwinterweatherparty.org. For comprehensive disaster safety and home mitigation information on weather of all kinds visit www.flash.org.