Strange Days: Life with El Nino Readiness Is Key to Coping with Barrage of Storms, as Another One Pounds West Coast

Article excerpt

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 Nino 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 Nino 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 Nino 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. …