Hell Nino: As Storms Swept through Florida and California, Meteorologists Predicted Rough Weather Ahead

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, March 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Hell Nino: As Storms Swept through Florida and California, Meteorologists Predicted Rough Weather Ahead


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Lori Prescott had been furiously

clearing rocks from a drainage channel near

her home in Modjeska Canyon in Orange

County, Calif., when a hillside of mud gave

way, covering her up to her shoulders and

trapping her between her house and the hot

tub. As the avalanche threatened to bury her

completely, Prescott managed to pull her feet

free, only to be swept along in the surging

mud. Suddenly, a neighbor reached out and

snared her. When Prescott's elderly father

saw the bedraggled, filthy form the man had

in his arms, he congratulated him on saving

the family dog.

Prescott survived. But nine people in

California, and 39 in Florida, died last week in

the worst storms of the El Nino winter. On

the West Coast, the storms unleashed floods

that scalped lawns and collapsed hillsides.

Torrents of mud surged into homes, killing

one man in Laguna Beach, buckling walls and

burying cars. Two tornadoes--rarities in

California--hit south of Los Angeles; a

sinkhole 10 feet deep opened up in Universal

City, and two California Highway Patrol

officers near Santa Barbara were carried away

when the Cuyama River washed out, the road.

Would-be rescuers found them too late; they

were interred in their cruiser. It was as if El

Nino, the climate anomaly that starts when

water in the equatorial Pacific sloshes toward

Peru and creates a huge, warm pool stretching

two thirds of the way to Asia, had finally tired

of being the butt of jokes about "El Nino

Desaparecido" and "El No-Show."

Last week, El Nino wasn't funny, and it

definitely wasn't MIA. It had pushed the

winter jet stream so that it passed over

California, the Southwest and the Southeast

rather than Seattle and the northern plains.

The jet stream, six to eight miles up, speeds

east at up to 200 miles per hour. Winds

alongside the jet stream flow at a mere 50

mph, explains climate researcher Tom

Murphree of the Naval Postgraduate School

in Monterey, Calif. That's an inherently

unstable setup--fast air sandwiched between

slow--and one that therefore spins off lots of

kinks and eddies, otherwise known as storms.

They hit California first. After drying up and

weakening over the

Southwest, they get a second wind by

sucking up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week that sequence spawned the

deadliest tornadoes ever to hit Florida.

Packing winds as high as 210 miles per hour,

the tornadoes wrapped trailers around trees,

lifted cars into living rooms, piled one camper

atop another and carried at least one trailer,

its owner inside, more than 200 yards before

dropping it into a river. And in a move of

almost theatrical cruelty, one twister snatched

an 8-month-old from his father's arms, killing

the child. President Clinton toured the

devastation, telling dazed survivors, "Your fellow

Americans are praying for you and pulling

for You."

So were meteorologists, even if they had to

stifle the urge to say "We told you so." A

year ago, oceanographers detected a rise in

ocean temperatures off Peru. That was the

first sign of El Nino. Their predictions since,

then have held up even better than most three-day

forecasts. "A lot of people thought that

natural variability in the weather is too great

for El Nino to exert much influence," says

meteorologist Robert Livezey of the Climate

Prediction Center, part of the National

Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. …

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