Risk Insider: Matthew Nielsen

California Dreamin’

By: | August 6, 2015

Matthew Nielsen, a meteorologist and geographer with a great deal of experience in climate hazard models, is Senior Director, Global Governmental and Regulatory Affairs at RMS. He can be reached at [email protected]

It’s no secret that California has been suffering through a record-breaking drought that has plagued the state for over four years.  Reservoirs have been emptied, fields have been fallowed, and citizens are worried.

And while lawns across the state are turning brown in the blistering summer heat, good news has begun to appear for a potential savior to California’s water woes:  El Nino.

El Nino, identified by anomalous warming of the waters in the central Pacific Ocean, has been known to significantly affect the weather across North America.

El Nino is typically associated with quiet hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, warm winters in the eastern U.S., and stormier conditions in the West. It is often noted for causing substantial warming of the ocean off of California, Oregon, and Washington.

While improvements have been added to many vulnerable areas, such as the strengthening of levees around Sacramento, many of these flood defenses have yet to be put to the test.

So far this year, warm sea surface temperature anomalies have reached up to 5 degrees F in areas of California, leading to sightings of exotic sea life that typically live off the coast of Mexico and areas further south.

There’s no denying that some previous El Nino winters have brought torrential rainfall to the Golden State.

The 1997/1998 event brought twice the normal rainfall to many areas, along with devastating floods.  Rivers and lakes across the state were inundated by persistent rainfall, spilling water over floodwalls, rupturing levees, and soaking low lying areas.

While improvements have been added to many vulnerable areas, such as the strengthening of levees around Sacramento, many of these flood defenses have yet to be put to the test.

Flood insurance penetration remains low, and losses caused by a stormy winter are most likely to be carried by homeowners themselves.  Even though the National Flood Insurance Program is in place to provide up to $250,000 of dwelling coverage and $100,000 in contents coverage for single family residences, the average California home is worth over $400,000 (source:  Trulia).

This leaves a gap in the insurance to value ratio that many homeowners may not realize.

Making matters worse, this year’s wildfire season in California has also been active. Nearly 3,900 fires have been reported, burning almost 70,000 acres.  Two out of the three largest fires in California’s history have occurred during this major drought, leaving massive burn scars in their wake.

If this year’s El Nino event causes heavy rainfall, as in years past, these scorched areas could become highly susceptible to landslides.  The New Year’s Day Floods of 1997 caused a major mudslide in the burn scar along the American River, closing U.S. 50 through the Sierra Nevada Mountains for a month.  These floods also caused two levee failures in the Sacramento Valley, flooding what was then mostly farmland.

These welcome rains will hopefully put a dent in the drought across California, but they may also leave some homeowners ‘underwater.’  Years of extreme drought and devastating wildfires have left California vulnerable and unprepared for further disaster.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]