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S P E C I A L El Niño Returns

El Niño to continue wreaking havoc into summer

El Nino
Regional rainfall anomalies associated with the 1997-98 El Niño. Green regions are wetter and red regions are drier than normal.  

In this story:

February 12, 1998
Web posted at: 8:03 p.m. EST (0103 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Officials say that the El Niño weather phenomenon considered by some to be "the weather event of the century" will continue working its mischief until early this summer.

El Niño has been blamed for torrential rains in California, colder temperatures in the southern United States, record highs in the northern United States and devastating floods and mudslides in Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

"El Niño is still going strong and will for two more months," Commerce Secretary William M. Daley said Thursday. "The severe weather in California and the Southeast, unfortunately, will continue."

"We think that the character of the rain response in areas like Florida, Southern California or central California is going to be very much like it has been for the last month or two months," said Ants Leetmaa, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

NASA Animation of El Niño '97-98
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"What you'll have is episodic events. There'll be periods where it dries out. Then again, there'll be periods of very heavy storms like we've seen in the past."

A state of emergency has been declared in 31 California counties since torrential rains began 10 days ago. The rough weather was blamed for at least eight deaths, dangerous landslides and power blackouts for tens of thousands of homes there. Storms have undermined roads and buildings and driven people from their homes.

Rains in the Americas, drought in Indonesia

In fact, as Daley and other officials discussed the latest findings on El Niño Thursday, President Clinton announced that federal disaster relief would be available to victims of heavy rains, tornadoes and flooding in Florida. Storms that devastated parts of Broward, Dade and Monroe counties have also been blamed on El Niño.

Antonio Busalacchi, research oceanographer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, says that rains in the eastern tropical Pacific have been 6 to 9 feet higher than normal this winter, while places like Indonesia have 5 to 6 feet less rain than normal.

As a result, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and California, have suffered from heavy rains, mudslides and floods causing hundreds of deaths.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, meanwhile, drought and a plague of forest fires and lingering smoke have caused widespread respiratory health problems.

El Niño refers to a periodic warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific that has a major influence on weather patterns in many parts of the world and can cause severe damage to crops and property.

In the winter of 1982-83, an El Niño system did $10 billion worth of damage worldwide and Daley said "this El Niño may be just as strong."

Daley said damage estimates so far range from $250 million to $1 billion in the U.S. The 1982-83 system did an estimated $2.5 billion in damage in the U.S. alone, Daley said, and property values have risen sharply since then.

Indonesia and Maylasia have experienced drought due to El Niño's effects  

Record highs in northern United States

Most parts of northern and central California have already reached normal rainfall totals for the season, according to the NOAA.

Cities in the southern United States, including New Orleans, Tampa, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina, have also had record rainfall since last fall.

In the northern United States, temperatures have been two to four degrees warmer than normal and have accounted for record-high temperatures in Chicago, Minneapolis, Bismarck, North Dakota and Buffalo, New York.

Leetmaa said surface temperatures in the western Pacific "are still well above normal and are expected to remain that way into April and May."

His forecast for February through April calls for wetter than normal conditions in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida. At the same time, the Puget Sound region, Montana, the Great Lakes, the mid-Atlantic and the Ohio Valley seem likely to be drier than usual.

The forecast calls for warmer than normal temperatures for the Pacific Coast and northern tier of states east to the Great Lakes and colder than usual in Texas, the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast states north to North Carolina.

The NOAA forecast models indicate that the sea's temperatures will begin to return to normal temperatures in the summer and early autumn.

El Niño cuts heating costs by 10%

D. James Baker, head of NOAA, pointed out that the current El Niño was accurately forecast by his agency, the first time it has been accomplished by government forecasters.

That forecast, which was issued last year, permitted time for people to prepare for the worst, Baker said. He noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency held a seminar in California last year to discuss the threat.

There have been benefits from El Niño. One is that the warmer weather in many parts of the United States has resulted in a 10 percent drop in heating bills for many Americans. Another is that El Niño's onset cut the hurricane season in half.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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