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Not Just Your Average Storm

This week's El Nio-spawned weather is part of a pattern that may last through April.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 1998



BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y.

El Nino's temper tantrum has come.

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Powerful storms, fueled by the South Pacific weather phenomena, are pummeling the nation from Oregon to Florida.

Some of the scenes are painfully familiar: Helicopter rescue crews snatching residents from swollen rivers in Los Angeles. Mud flowing through million-dollar homes in Malibu. Homes blackened by power outages in Florida.

Other scenes are less usual: Residents on Long Island hiring cranes to literally lift their beach houses out of harm's way. "The ocean is going to come through here somewhere," says Warren Padula as he watches a crew hoist his uncle's house out of reach of the ocean in this toney Long Island town.

For now, meteorologists expect the El Nio weather pattern, which became entrenched about three weeks ago, to continue for the next several months. Wet weather will continue to hammer California and Oregon. Heavy snow will fall in the Sierra Nevadas. And the Southeast is expected to be busy sandbagging flood waters.

"It could last right through April," says Gerry Bell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md.

Eroding shores

Besides safety concerns, the weather excesses are taking an economic toll. Many West Coast homeowners face floods and mudslides. Florida farmers see crop losses. Waves pounding the coasts could produce heavy insurance losses. "Not only do the big waves come, but the average level of the sea rises, all of which is a disaster for coastal communities," says Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University expert on shoreline erosion.

The same storm, with hurricane-force gusts, tore down trees and power lines in Miami. Florida Power & Light reported more than 250,000 customers without power, at least briefly. "We're treating it exactly as we would a hurricane cleanup," says Tom Veenstra, of Florida Power & Light Co.

At the Hialeah Flea Market, workers scrambled to rebuild booths and remove debris after a tornado ripped through the market of 1,000 vendors. "It sounded like a train approaching," says Scott Miller, general manager of the market. "One of my vendors jumped into his van and couldn't close the door because of the wind. The van got pushed 40 feet with him holding onto the door."

A different but equally intense storm hit California. From Mendocino County in the north to San Diego, there were power outages, flooding, mudslides, and rescues from rain-swollen creeks. Thunderclaps had many residents erroneously reporting an earthquake.

The storm systems are the result of a shift in the normal storm track. Warmer water in the eastern Pacific has steered the jet stream - a fast moving air current that directs the weather - towards central California instead of the Pacific Northwest.

"You get all these walloping storms that even continue to develop as they hit the shoreline," says Mr. Bell.

Most are carrying a lot of rain. Bell says that cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco, and Tampa, Fla., have recorded more than double their normal amounts the past three months.

Because the storms were predicted, many communities have been trying to prepare themselves. Communities in Florida, for example, have been busy building sea walls. Mr. Pilkey says, however, this can exacerbate the problem since it shifts the erosion to a different part of the beach.

That's certainly what Mr. Padula believes has happened to his uncle's house. Only two houses away, a wealthy New York real estate developer spent more than $1 million on a subsurface sandbag project to shore up his beachfront, he says.

But the ocean has scoured away the beach from his neighbors. One nearby resident has subsequently installed a metal bulkhead to try to protect an expensive home. According to Padula, this moved the erosion further west, destroying a community beach and a parking lot.

Mending fences

None of the houses may make it past the Nor'easter expected to hit the area with headstrong winds and monster seas. The whole affair is now tied up in lawsuits. "I think it will be a rallying point on the South Shore of Long Island to prohibit sea walls," says Pilkey.

Erosion experts will be watching to see if beach replenishment projects survive the storm. For the past two years, the Army Corps of Engineers has added 375 feet of sand to the beachfront at Westhampton Dunes.

The government project followed a storm that created a new inlet and destroyed several houses. To settle a lawsuit, the government agreed to maintain a beach on the site for the next 30 years. Now, there is a construction boom taking place around the reclaimed dunes.

* Staff writer Daniel B. Wood in Los Angeles and Harold Maass contributed to this report.