Strange Days: Life With El Nio

Readiness is key to coping with barrage of storms, as another one pounds West Coast.

For his 30-minute morning commute, Malibu filmmaker Jim Oliver packs his briefcase, his lunch, and a suitcase containing two changes of work clothes and pajamas.

"With all the roads to my house being closed for flooding, mudslides, rockslides, I never know if I'll make it back at night," he says.

Miles south, in Culver City, Calif., Bill Stierle tiptoes daily through his carpetless condo, where belongings are stacked on shelves or cement blocks until rugs are dried and weatherstripping is shored up.

"This is getting old," says Mr. Stierle, who stepped out of his shower into 1-1/2 inches of ice-cold rainwater last week. "The displacement of everything I own is making it hard to function."

As the overheated mass of Pacific current known as El Nio continues to interrupt weather patterns worldwide, the constant barrage of storm fronts is changing the daily living patterns of people who are left in its wake. Besides the headline-making disasters of homes crashing into the ocean and mudslides burying garages, the relentless wet weather is altering - in an infinitude of ways - how ordinary citizens work and play, rain or shine.

Since July, Los Angeles has received nearly twice the amount of rainfall as normal by this time - 17.71 inches compared with 9.71 inches. That is already more than the wettest El Nio season on record (1982-83), and officials caution rainfall could total nearly 40 inches by May.

From water-soaked building lobbies and mud-sludgy parking lots, to shorted-out elevators and blackened streetlights, the cumbersome side effects of El Nio are everywhere. Neighbors and co-workers have responded by pulling together against a common challenge, boosting one another to endure the wearying loss of taken-for-granted conveniences. Now they are bracing themselves for what could be the biggest hit yet, expected to sweep the area after press time.

"My own house and neighborhood are doing fine so far," says Levon Wilkins, a North Hollywood construction worker, packing his cheeks with eggs and ham at a local eatery. "But I've been an hour late to work every day for a week behind car accidents, fallen trees, rocks, you name it."

His comment roughly reflects how public officials characterize damage regionwide. Isolated pockets of devastation in coastal areas, hilly areas, and low-lying neighborhoods generate great film footage for local TV stations, they say, but generally, damage is at a minimum.

"Because the public has spent so much time preparing for these storms, we feel the resulting damage overall has been slight so far," says Steve Valenzuela of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "By being armed with sandbags, plastic, and plywood to help divert water, many communities have largely escaped devastating consequences."

Statewide, damages from storms total as much as $300 million in 22 counties declared to be in states of emergency.

Here in the sprawl of Los Angeles, that land mass stuck between desert and ocean, diverse neighborhoods are being affected in different ways. Beach communities such as Malibu are being socked by high winds that tear off roofs and siding, and pounding surf that has erased sand beaches down to rock for long stretches.

The hilly community of West Hills has dominated headlines with mud and rock slides. Several hillside homeowners have lost backyards, while others have seen their living rooms fill waist-high with mud. The scene is offering geologists a clinic in soil saturation points that could affect future zoning laws.

Elsewhere, emergency crews are working round the clock to shut off gas and water lines in less-affected areas. Crews from Southern California Gas Co. are examining neighborhoods by helicopter, looking for trouble spots like the one that snapped a large natural-gas pipeline and hurled a plume of yellow flame that could be seen 50 miles away.

"What is giving us a break is the one or two days between storms," says one Cal Trans official, working a Caterpillar earthmover on Pacific Coast Highway, where mudslides have blockaded residents into - or out of - several Malibu neighborhoods.

While that short respite is enough to give work crews and rescue crews time to get caught up, and even rest, the consequences for many residents are inevitably long term.

"My whole work schedule is being thrown off through May," says Ellen Vukovich, a landscape designer who works in communities all over southern California. Because of rain-saturated hillsides, the work of planting trees, shrubs, and flowers must be halted. Even those communities where storm-induced water flows have shown the necessity of new drainage pipes and sewers must wait until hillsides dry out.

"The only problem," says Ms. Vukovich, "is that just as things are about to dry out, another storm hits."

But there's a lighter side to El Nio. One retired Navy man named Al Nino has been getting calls night and day with comments both crank and comical. Physical-education teacher Eliseo Nino, meanwhile, is getting honked at for his vanity license plate: "L Nino."

Others note the grass has never been greener or the water bills lower. And there's this comment from Martin Wassell, a British migr to L.A. working as a filmmaker: "We get this kind of weather in England, too," he says. "We call it March."

What El Nino Has Wrought in The Golden State

Rainfall so far this season:

* 35 inches in San Francisco (average is 14.5 inches).

* 17.7 inches for Los Angeles (average is 9.8 inches).

* 163 percent of normal in the Sacramento River basin, the state's biggest water-holding "sponge."

Comparisons with the 1982-83 El Nio:

* $265 million in damages statewide vs. $300 million so far this season.

* 14 deaths attributed to El Nio vs. 10 so far this year.

El Nio costs and benefits:

* Hydropower and water will be plentiful this summer, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack stands at 157 percent of normal.

* Watch the price of strawberries. Those farmers so far have been hardest hit.

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