Keep Calm, Be Prepared, and El Niño On


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.


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?

Lightning Victim Strikes Back

By Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Bill Prince knew his Chicago-area home was hit by lightning even before he saw the burned portion of his cedar shake roof.

“It’s a very loud explosion and you know immediately when it hits because the concussion from the heating of the air shakes everything,” he says.

Prince grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed to the attic, the smell of burned wood growing stronger. He called 911, and soon thereafter firemen using a thermal camera examined the roof and structural supports for any sign of fire, hidden embers, or hot spots.

They didn’t find anything, but the lightning had hit a corner of the roof causing $20,000 in damage where the main roof support joist exploded.

That happened in 2010, and after several years of exploring lightning protection systems, Prince opted to use air terminals–lightning rods connected by copper cable that run from the home’s  corners down to the ground.  The cable is buried approximately 10 feet underground.  Once installed, the highly conductive copper and aluminum materials provide a low resistance path to safely bring lightning’s dangerous electricity down to the ground.  The goal of grounding a house is to take lightning’s electrical charge and shuttle it into the dirt.  Prince’s professional installation was completed in April.  Typical grounding costs between $1,500 and $4,200, depending on the size of the home.

If you’re thinking your home is already is grounded, you’re only partly correct.  A home’s electrical conduit in the walls and attic is grounded, but it’s not enough to withstand a jolt of lightning that can pack heat of more than 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Prince’s protection system adds grounding to his home’s piping and water system.  And both circuit breaker boxes have surge protectors.

Are these protective rods and cable unsightly?  No.  In fact, they’re quite unobtrusive and come in a variety of finishes and styles.  On Prince’s house, the 12- to 18-inch terminals are no bigger than the diameter of a ballpoint pen and their copper color will oxidize and eventually turn to brown and match the color of his wood roof.  The copper cable is tucked along the home’s downspouts and will turn to brown as well.  When a lightning protection network is in place, a lightning strike is intercepted and directed to the ground without impact to the people, contents or structure.

From June 22 to 28, Lightning Safety Awareness Week will bring national attention to lightning safety and property protection.  Learn more by visiting and and remember, When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!

Editor’s Note: Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

Lightning Safety Tips

Go, go gadget! Protect your super gadgets by installing certified surge protectors. Share this photo to remind your friends that a simple home update can protect your home and its contents.

Lightning Safety Tips

More Lightning Safety Tips from FLASH

Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)® offers the following tips to keep families reduce their risk of lightning injuries:

Before the Storm

  • Stay alert and listen carefully for the first signs of lightning or thunder. Remember, “If Thunder Roars, Go Indoors™.”
  • Seek shelter. Lightning often hits before the rain begins, so don’t wait for the rain to start before leaving.

If Outdoors

  • Avoid water, high ground and open spaces.
  • Stay away from metal objects including wires, fences and motors.
  • Find shelter in a sizable building or in a fully enclosed metal vehicle like a car or truck. Completely close the windows and don’t lean on the doors.
  • Don’t get under a small canopy, small picnic shelter or near trees.
  • If you cannot take shelter indoors, crouch down with your feet together and place your hands over your ears to minimize hearing damage from the thunder.
  • Stay at least 15 feet away from other people.

If Indoors

  • Avoid water and stay away from doors and windows.
  • Do not use landline telephone or headsets. Cell phones are safe.
  • Turn off, unplug and stay away from appliances, computers, power tools and televisions sets as lightning may strike exterior electric and phone lines inducing shocks to equipment inside.

After the Storm

  • Don’t resume activities until at least 30 minutes after the last lightning strike or thunderclap.
  • Call 911 immediately if anyone is injured and use first aid procedures.
  • Lightning victims do not carry an electrical charge, so it is safe to administer medical treatment.

For more information on protecting your home from extreme cold conditions, visit For severe weather alerts and mitigation tips, download FLASH Weather Alerts at