Dirt Therapy: It’s Time to Prepare for El Niño

Dirt Therapy is a regular column by GNTG founder, Marianne Taylor, appearing in the Capistrano Dispatch

With our homes, gardens and neighborhoods ready, we can handle the effects of El Niño

My father, who was raised on the East Coast until settling in Southern California after World War II, often joked that California has four seasons: earthquake, fire, flood and mudslides. Well, his assessment is not far off from the truth.

After El Niño hit Ventura County in the winter of 1966, I witnessed, at 11 years old, the punishing effects of the winter rains as our family car filled with rainwater and floated down the street.

This El Niño storm devastated coastal homes, marinas, bridges and surrounding hillside areas throughout Southern California.

Climate experts believe that there is a 95 percent chance of El Niño weather conditions lasting throughout the remainder of this year. While we’re finally going to get some relief from one condition—the drought—it’s time we prepare our home, gardens and neighborhoods for this wet winter.

What exactly is El Niño? It’s the name given to a shift in trade winds over the Pacific Ocean, which causes a rise in ocean temperatures. These trade winds normally blow sun-warmed ocean water toward Australia and Indonesia, while allowing deeper, colder water to rise to the surface. During an El Niño year, these winds decrease or stop so that the warm waters remain and the cold water don’t rise to the top, creating warmer water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and along the equator, causing humidity and rain.

If the experts are correct, El Niño is expected to be a strong weather pattern this winter. The time is now to prepare your home, garden and neighborhood before the rains arrive.

Preparing Your Home:

Clean your rain gutters of debris to ensure water flows smoothly into storm drains. Be sure to check the gutters again for capturing and diverting water when the storm arrives. Installing rain barrels now is ideal for saving winter water for summer use. Fix leaking windows and check your weather-stripping around the doors. Make sure that water can’t get inside house.

Walk around your house and check the stucco for large cracks. While you’re at it, inspect your roof and check for aging and damages. From the ground level, look up and see if there is sagging. Be sure to schedule pruning your trees; you don’t want heavy limbs crashing on your roof.

You may need to call a professional to do a roof inspection. With the first heavy rain, check your interior walls for leaks so they can be repaired quickly. You don’t want another problem—mold.

Consider purchasing flood insurance. Purchase sand bags. Take photographs inside and outside of your house in the event you need to file an insurance claim. Keep an itemized list of your furnishing, electronics and personal valuable belongings. Create a family evacuation plan.

Preparing Your Garden:

Lay mulch to absorb the heavy rainfall; bare soil can’t permeate the rainwater and causes runoff, clogged drains and hillside erosion. Mulch will slow down the water and help retain the moisture in the soil. By increasing the layer of mulch in your gardens, you can turn off your sprinklers this winter.

With cool nights and warm days, fall is the ideal time to plant native plants. Get your plantings in now; you don’t want to plant when the rains have arrived. With heavy winds and rains, young plants get stressed and may perish.

If you live on a hillside be sure to check the bare slope and cover it with biodegradable jute landscape fabric, which will hold the dirt in place. This is also a good time to plant native plants in the jute for erosion control. The fabric will disappear as the plants grow. Check out Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano—they have a large selection of California native plants.

Preparing Your Neighborhood:

If you live in areas at risk, be diligent and have a plan. Schedule a neighborhood preparedness meeting, and encourage neighbors to develop a plan dealing with localized flooding, wind damage and power outages, as well as arrangements to evacuate.

Although we’ve been in a drought for the last four years, this deluge of rainwater from El Niño is needed to fill up our nearly empty reservoirs. We Californians must continue to conserve water and be mindful of our use. Every drop counts.

For more information, visit www.water.ca.gov/floodsafe.