Preparing for El Nino- part one, plus a lesson on weather patterns

I don’t know what its like in your part of the world, but here in California, the ever persistent headlines about the drought have been replaced with titles like: “El Nino is Coming!”, “Wicked El Nino, Strongest Ever Recorded!”, “El Nino Keeps Getting Stronger!”, “Powerful El Nino to Bring Drenching Rains and Flooding”, and (my favorite, from KQED) “Batten Down the Hatches, its Coming!”

Disclaimer: all those ‘n’s in Nino are supposed to have a tilde over them, but I’m way to lazy to figure out how to get special characters out of WordPress Editing, so bear with me.

El Nino is common word to us native Californians. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a quick breakdown. Originally recognized by fishermen in the 1600’s, it was the appearance of increased temperatures of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean. These warmer-than-average temperatures then influence weather patterns, and happen every 2-7 years. This may mean different things depending on what region you’re in: increased cyclones, drier than average, warmer than average, etc. For California, it means rain. Lots and lots of rain- and all the things that can accompany rain, like flooding, fallen trees, and mudslides. If you’re near the ocean, the coast gets beaten from intensive waves and the sea cliffs fail.

photo source: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-el-nino-forecast-20151015-story.html
photo source: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-el-nino-forecast-20151015-story.html

Forecasts predict we will be getting this rain throughout January, February and March. These same models are suggesting patterns that are similar to California’s wettest historical winters (including the 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 El Niño events). The ocean temperature has warmed 5.4 degrees F, the highest increase on record, and then factor in all the aspects of climate change and rising sea levels. However, even with one above-average winter is unlikely to remove four years of drought. According to NOAA,  “California would need close to twice its normal rainfall to get out of drought and that’s unlikely.”

photo source: http://ww2.kqed.org/science/2015/11/20/el-nino-forecast-for-california-batten-down-the-hatches/
photo source: http://ww2.kqed.org/science/2015/11/20/el-nino-forecast-for-california-batten-down-the-hatches/

Regardless of how much we get, rain is good. I love the rain. I love winter storms. I’ve been though many El Ninos. My childhood was punctuated with roads blocked by landslides, late-night phone calls for my dad to clear trees off houses or roads, watching news coverage of billion dollar homes falling off beach cliffs, and staying home from school on really bad days. But now, I own a janky ass house that might just float away or disintegrate. I get standing water under my house, and the interior gets super humid and damp and causes mold issues. All things that I have experienced in one of California’s most epic of droughts. I am actually scared of what El Nino might bring to the state of my homestead.

The beach I grew up on, in the 83 El Nino. The 97 was very similar. Aptos, CA
The beach I grew up on, in the 83 El Nino. The 97 was very similar. Aptos, CA

So, I have now switched to full Prepare for El Nino Mode. The first step, deal with the standing water. There is a random mini-concrete perimeter foundation directly under a trap door (ie, hole patched with plywood) in the middle of my living room. We were unaware of this until we removed the carpet. After consulting the neighbors, we learned there used to be a sump pump there, but of course the sellers removed it and didn’t disclose that info. Somehow, this concrete hole fills up with water when it rains. There are no drains or pipes leading into it. There is no way for the water to directly pour into the hole. But somehow the water gets into it. And then it stays there, until pumped away.

plywood covering hole in the floor
plywood covering hole in the floor

When we opened up the floor a few weekends ago to start El Nino Preparedness, there was still water in there, likely from last winter. I’m not going to lie, when we closed the floor back up after last year, I had just assumed it would go away. Obviously, I was wrong. Over the year, a root had also grown under the foundation, under the house, up the sump-pump foundation, and then spread roots along the wall to get to the water. Can we just pause for a moment and think about how ridiculous this is? A tree (likely the fig) is snaking around to get to the cistern of water, UNDER MY HOUSE. So we borrowed a portable pump from the neighbors and pumped out the water. We removed all the roots. I got a quote from our plumber to install a permanent one, and we are actively saving so we can have one installed before the major rains come.

Using a borrowed pump to remove the water. Do you see all those roots?
Using a borrowed pump to remove the water. Do you see all those roots?

Next step, deal with the dampness, and lay a vapor barrier under the house. Basically, its a layer of plastic between the ground and the house. That way, if the soil under the house gets wet, the water doesn’t evaporate and penetrate into the house, it stays below the plastic. I’m pretty sure they are a basic building practice in new construction, but once again, I own a janky-ass old house. We didn’t have an issue during our first year here, as we had carpet, and that acted as a barrier. But once we removed it, the moisture seeped though the hardwood, making anything directly touching the floor mold: shoes, books, boxes, bookshelves.

After consulting with our contractor, we determined this was a project we could easily handle. You lay out 6 mil plastic sheeting, sloping up the sides of the foundation and cutting around pier-blocks. Then, tape all the seams with duct tape. Other than the physical difficultly of fitting under the house and crawling on your belly, it’s a simple job. There are some sections of the house that have very, very little clearance; probably 9″ or less, and then factor in all the old piping, new piping, and old wiring to work around. Since I’m significantly smaller than my other homesteading half, reaching those spots was delegated to me. It took a sizable chunk of two Saturdays for me to wiggle in all the very narrow spots, while Matt worked on the middle sections that he could fit in. Overall, we saved about $550 by doing the work ourselves.

under house

Next step on El Nino preparedness: the flooding issue.

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4 thoughts on “Preparing for El Nino- part one, plus a lesson on weather patterns

  1. Hi Melissa, We are doing the exact same thing to our home in Petaluma. We replaced our sump pump earlier this year, rolled plastic under the house 3 weeks ago, and installed a French drain 2 weeks ago to pump out the water from under the house and the backyard to the street. This weekend I went around all the drains from the gutters and installed pipes to direct water away from the house. We will need to clean the gutters again in the next few weeks because all the trees are dropping leaves now. We wrapped up our woodpile for our fires. Bought 10 five-gallon jugs of water from Friedman’s in the event the power goes out and oil lanterns, flashlights, and candles. Can’t wait, I’m ready! Bring it!

  2. Best of luck! El Nino has taken us out of our record-setting-severe drought this year. I’m hopeful it does similarly for y’all, with less damage and loss of life. Only the record from 1919 is hanging on for “wettest year” and we may still beat it before year’s end. Stay safe!

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