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Title:

Previous El Ninos were tragic and destructive. What does that tell us about 2016? FILE - In this Feb. 24, 1998 file photo, a woman waits for a tow tru

Subtitle:

Date:

2015-12-20

Summary:

December 20, 2015 - More warnings of a monster Godzilla storm season as well as the sad story of Nathan Cook, who was captured by flood waters in the Arroyo in 1998.

Author:

Steve Scauzillo

Publication:

San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Content:


FILE - In this Feb. 24, 1998 file photo, a woman waits for a tow truck on the hood of her brother’s pickup after a wall of mud plowed down Laguna Beach Canyon Road in Orange County, forcing her to evacuate her home, in background.

On Feb. 7, 1998, Nathan Cook took a bike ride along the Arroyo Seco in Altadena when a wall of water swept him away. In an instant, the experienced mountain biker was dead.

They found his body four days later pinned against a tree near Devil’s Gate Dam.

“His lungs were filled with water and dirt,” recounted his father, Russell Cook, 74, during an interview Wednesday, nearly 18 years after he buried his son.

The 20-year-old junior attending Occidental College in Eagle Rock, who scored a 99 on the biology portion of the ACT, wanted to be a microbiologist, said his father, his interest stoked at age 5 when his parents gave him a microscope he would use to look at pond water from a lake near the family home in Warrenton, Ore. Being far from home, his dad worried about him: “I said you ought to be careful out there. He said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

That was the last contact he had with his son.

IS 1998 EL NINO A PREVIEW OF 2016?

Nathan Cook was one of 17 storm-related fatalities in California that winter, when the largest El Niño in the 20th century brought relentless rainstorms, causing mudslides, floods and sewage spills and $550 million in damage.

What happened in the winter of 1997-1998 may be a preview of what’s to come these next few months because climatologists — including those from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory less than a mile from where Cook took his fateful ride — say the current El Niño off the Pacific is even larger than that of 1997-1998.

Advanced satellite imagery shows warmer sea temperatures at the surface, a sure sign of an El Niño that usually brings strings of storms to California, as well as new data of warmer ocean temperatures 200 meters beneath the surface.

“This is deep down. This is not going away in two weeks or two months,” said Bill Patzert, oceanographer and climatologist with JPL who has been studying El Niño patterns for decades.

Patzert and the National Weather Service agree this El Niño is huge and will influence weather in Southern and Northern California from January through March. No one can say how much rain and snow will fall and exactly where. The question remains whether we will see a repeat of the devastation of 1998, when not only first-responders, but the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to restore order.

The unscientific answer may be found in the news pages of February 1998, nearly 18 years ago.

BACK TO THE FUTURE?

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service at that time said storms could be seen on radar “backed up to Japan,” with each one heading into California. During the month of February 1998, the state experienced the brunt of El Niño, as storm after storm dropped in like an endless queue of unwanted house guests, all wreaking havoc. Some of the local storm-related incidents just in that 28-day period were tragic. They included the following:

• In Claremont, a eucalyptus tree on College Avenue fell on Feb. 23, crashing through a car and killing two Claremont College sophomores, Brian G. Cressner and Yuta Peter Kurahashi. The ground was soaked and unstable.

• Up at Mountain High ski resort in Wrightwood, Jeff Thornton, a 14-year-old snowboarder from Brawley, ventured into unchartered areas, a practice known as going “off piste,” and went missing. His uncle, Marc Shapiro, 30, lost track of his nephew in the fresh powder from the El Niño storms. Six days later, Thornton was rescued and found alive, surviving blizzard conditions on snow and creek water, with rescuers calling it “a miracle.” A week later, the mood turned gloomy when Thornton died of complications from frostbite and gangrene at Loma Linda University Hospital.

• Frank Metz, 84, of Los Angeles, was killed when his car plunged off a road in the San Fernando Valley that had been undermined by the rains and runoff.

• Francis Lee McCall, a 59-year-old software engineer, slipped into San Dimas Creek and drowned on Feb. 23. He went to help a neighbor whose car was stuck in the mud. His body wasn’t found until a month later.

• A Canoga Park mobile home park was damaged by a 4-foot wall of mud. Mudslides closed roads in Malibu, Topanga Canyon, Santa Clarita and Newhall. Flooding closed streets in Van Nuys, near the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area.

• In Diamond Bar, neighbors were awakened by a loud, crashing sound: a hillside had slipped 20 feet. Three homes were yellow-tagged.

Excessive rainfall pummelled Central California. Near Santa Maria, CHP officers Rick Stovall and Brit Irvine were killed when their patrol car was engulfed by the rushing Cuyama River after part of Highway 166 gave way. Santa Barbara received 21.74 inches of rain in February, breaking all monthly records going back to 1867, according to the National Climatic Data Center. For comparison, during the last four years, Los Angeles has had 29 inches of rain.

Laguna Beach experienced major mudslides that killed one man and injured 10 other people. Homes in Pacifica, in Northern California, were damaged; 140 people were evacuated from their homes in Rio Nido, a town along the Russian River.

SCATTERED IMPACTS EXPECTED

If the next few months of weather matches the intensity and frequency of storms of February 1998, similar impacts could be expected. But once again, impacts will be scattered, hard to predict and “very local,” Patzert said.

“There are thousands of little disasters that happen with these storms, like clogged storm drains and unstable hillsides, or the guy who lives above you has his septic tank come into your patio,” he said. “Those things are just poor zoning.”

Most of the big problems were fixed by the channelization of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Rio Hondo and Santa Ana rivers after major floods in 1914, 1932 and 1938, the latter causing the Army Corps of Engineers and Los Angeles County to force the flow of water into concrete “rivers.”

“In 1861-1862, floods created a 200-mile long lake in the Sacramento area,” said Kenneth Manning, two-time water board member and currently executive director of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority. “That’s when (Leland) Stanford had to take a boat to get sworn in as governor.”

Patzert remembers flying into LAX during the 1988 El Niño storms, which he predicted eight months prior. Out the window he saw a sea of rooftops covered in bright blue plastic sheeting.

“Recently, I spent three days with the county Department of Public Works people,” he said. “I advised them to invest in 300,000 blue tarps.”

Along the coast, erosion can worsen from rain and high tides, shrinking beaches and collapsing bluffs. Since there are more homes in California since the 1998 storms, more damage can be expected, he said.

“It can hit anywhere,” Patzert said. “Nobody is immune.”

STRESSED OUT TREES

This would be the first major El Niño after a prolonged drought. Dried lawns have left landscaped trees at risk of toppling over once the earth is saturated and the ground becomes soggy and unstable, experts said.

In Claremont in 1988, one theory is the tree that killed the two students was loosened by saturated soil. Many San Gabriel Valley and southeast Los Angeles County cities are older and contain numerous mature trees.

“What happens with eucalyptus is they get tall and very brittle. Sometimes it is hard to tell they are diseased inside. We’ve had a few of those come down over the years. They were part of Claremont when the colleges were established,” said Bevin Handel, city spokeswoman.

RECORD RAINS, UNSEEN CONSEQUENCES

In February 1998, precipitation records were set at 19 stations in California. One-month rainfall records were recorded at UCLA, 20.51 inches, breaking 18.37 inches in 1918; in Northridge, 15.75, breaking 14.23 from 1962; at the Los Angeles Civic Center, 13.68, breaking 13.37 in 1884; and in Long Beach, 11.22, breaking 9.66 in 1937.

At the Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale, which captures water from the eastern San Gabriel Mountains, 12 of 16 gates were opened during the February storms. The dam was at flood stage. Fifteen of the county’s dams were at their highest levels since the previous El Niño in 1983, the county Department of Public Works reported; five of the 15 had overflowed their spillways.

Tony Zampiello, executive officer of the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster and overseer of the 165-square-mile aquifer serving 2 million people, said 400,000 acre feet of storage was pulled out of the basin these past four years. It will take two years of 20-30 inches of rain — the largest yearly totals in Los Angeles were 31 inches in ’82-’83 and ’97-’98 — to bring the basin back to where it was five years ago, he said.

Water managers are hoping the rains are slow and steady, so the runoff can be captured and stored underground for future use.

That was not the case on Feb. 7, 1998, when Nathan Cook left his dorm and parked his car at the trail head at North Windsor Avenue and Ventura Street. He was headed for Mount Wilson but never got there. Searchers found his helmet with a snapped chin-strap and his eyeglasses 5 miles away. The cause of death was “drowning and sand aspiration,” according to Ed Winter, Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner assistant chief of operations.

People of Oregon are accustomed to fine rain falling steadily from overcast skies. The idea of 3 inches of rain and a flash flood never occurred to Cook, said his dad.

“My son wasn’t able to visualize a flash flood. It is not something we have up here,” Cook said. “It filled up the whole damn canyon.”

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