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FEMA preparing for possible El Nino disasters

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As the residents of New Orleans know all too well, extreme weather conditions can cause severe catastrophes. To help prepare for possible impacts of this year’s El Nino, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 9 office has established an El Nino task force.

On Wednesday, FEMA released its Severe El Nino Disaster Response plan during a Rehearsal of Concept exercise in Northern California. Arizona, California and Nevada are covered under the FEMA Region 9 disaster plan.

The plan’s risks were derived from the two strongest El Nino winters on record (1982-83 and 1997-98), which caused flooding throughout Arizona. This year’s El Nino has already exceeded all previous El Nino seasons on record to date and could be the strongest event ever recorded, according to Todd Morris, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regional coordinator for weather services.

“It’s certainly a strong event that we are going to be dealing with as we go into the winter months,” Morris said. “The outlook is certainly calling for this event to peak in the next 30 days, but I think it’s important to understand that the fact that the event strength is peaking doesn’t mean that the impacts are going away. They are sort of delayed, and the impacts are going to be seen in the months of January, February and March of this upcoming winter. But certainly, we are looking at the potential for one of the strongest El Nino (events) in recorded history.”

An El Nino is a weather phenomenon in which warmer tropical Pacific Ocean waters cause changes to the global atmospheric circulation, resulting in a wide range of changes to global weather. Over North America, the Pacific jet stream (a river of air that flows west to east) often expands eastward and shifts southward during El Nino, which makes precipitation more likely to occur across the southern tier of the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The NOAA also lists the probability for precipitation for Graham County for December through February as above normal and lists about a 60-percent chance that the area will have a wetter-than-normal winter. The agency also predicted a greater than 95-percent chance that a strong El Nino will continue through the Northern Hemisphere for the winter and an 85-percent chance it will last into early spring 2016.

While eastern Arizona is not usually as affected by El Nino as much as southern Arizona or southern California, Morris said the strength of this year’s event will be so great that it will likely have a strong impact on eastern Arizona as well, including extreme snow accumulation in the mountainous areas and flood dangers both from rain and eventual snowmelt. According to the University of Arizona Meteorological Network, the Safford area has registered 13.25 inches of rain at its measuring site at the Agriculture Center east of the city. That amount is the highest one-year total since the agency began measuring in 1987.

Arizona’s last strong El Nino in the winter of 2009 and 2010 caused between 40 to 60 inches of snow across the White Mountains in a three-day period and flooding in lower elevations. Then Governor Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency, and the Arizona National Guard was mobilized to assist in the protection of life and property. Eventually, eight Arizona counties, including Greenlee, and six tribes, including the San Carlos Apache, received federal aid to mitigate impact to public infrastructure.

While the extended drought has diminished reservoirs, which will alleviate some flood danger, several areas are still susceptible to a variety of damages.

To help combat the potential hazards, FEMA developed an Executive Decision Support Guide, or response plan, and an interactive flood decision support tool to enhance the regional office’s ability to respond to potential threats, according to a press release from the agency. The plan attempts to use information leaders to make informed decisions by determining the hazard level potentially impacting lives, public health, safety, property and critical infrastructure.

The support guide lists Arizona as having a lower risk of river flooding as seen in other states in the Midwest or East Coast but that the Salt and Gila rivers still have historically flooded during heavy rains. It also lists that Arizona is “highly susceptible” to flash flooding and could experience rapid snowmelt in mountainous areas. The Gila Valley, and especially Pima, could experience flooding issues due to a combination of rain and rapid snowmelt from Mount Graham in the spring.

“Utilizing a whole community approach to emergency management reinforces the fact that FEMA is only one part of our nation’s emergency management team,” FEMA Region 9 Administrator Bob Fenton said. “The exercise gives us an opportunity to learn from each other and from the experts in the areas where solutions will come from.”

Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs Deputy Director Wendy Smith-Reeve lauded Arizona’s participation in the exercise.

“There aren’t many types of disasters capable of impacting all Arizonans, but a strong El Nino could cause flooding, evacuations and power outages anywhere and everywhere in the state,” she said. “It takes a team effort to plan for, respond to and recover from the kinds of widespread consequences being talked about, which is why we’re invested in the education and training of and outreach to the whole community.”

The task force has focused on interpreting data in areas of Arizona, California and Nevada that have been historically vulnerable to El Nino events. Its Rehearsal of Concept exercise was intended to discover and fix issues, gaps or shortfalls to its plan, but the administrators stress that people should be prepared themselves, including gathering sandbags in flood-prone areas and being stocked with food and water in case of utility outages.

For more information on this year’s El Nino, its potential effects and how to prepare, visit the Arizona Emergency Information Network’s Web site at ein.az.gov.

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FEMA Region 9 El Nino task force objectives

• Establish actionable processes and procedures to identify the location, potential impacts and probability of occurrence of natural hazards

• Identify key at-risk populations, critical facilities and natural/cultural resources

• Identify gaps in core capabilities needed to overcome the threat

• Develop key messages to motivate partners to prepare and act

Source: FEMA

Preparations for heavy snow:

• Heat your home safely. Never use a generator, grill or camp stove indoors.

• Check on your neighbors.

• Winterize your vehicle. Install winter tires and have your brakes, battery, filters and fluids checked.

• Write a family communication plan that includes an out-of-town contact.

• Prepare for prolonged power outages. Build an emergency supply kit with enough nonperishable food and potable water to last at least 72 hours.

• Drive defensively. Don’t tailgate or try to cross flooded roadways.

• When you leave the house, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.

Preparations for heavy rain:

• Buy flood insurance. Most homeowners’ insurance policies do not cover flood damage.

• Never try to cross a flooded roadway. It takes only six inches of water to float many vehicles.

• Check on your neighbors.

• Prepare to evacuate. Build an emergency supplies kit with enough nonperishable food and potable water to last at least 72 hours.

Source: Arizona Emergency Information Network

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