Last winter’s storms sent a deluge of rain across California. Oakland received a record level of rainfall in a matter of weeks during December and January. The Oakland hills faced landslides, while the flatlands saw flooding, including rising waters that displaced tenants at an East Oakland property on New Year’s Eve. The city incurred over $7 million in storm damages, much of which Oakland is still trying to recoup through Federal Emergency Management Agency relief funding.
These storms were fueled by intense atmospheric rivers—essentially long, narrow currents of air filled with water vapor—which dumped rain on the area, overwhelming infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently issued an El Niño advisory for this winter and scientists are predicting it could be as rainy or rainier than the last.
What can Oakland residents expect from El Niño, and what can locals do to prepare? We spoke with meteorologists and city officials to hear their predictions and advice and gathered links to some helpful resources.
Understanding El Niño
An El Niño winter occurs when warmer temperatures along the eastern equatorial portion of the Pacific Ocean—the offshore area from roughly Peru to southern Mexico—funnel storms towards the West Coast of the United States. The warmer sea air often results in higher winter temperatures and rainier weather for California.
While an El Niño winter does not guarantee a wet year for California, it does make it more likely. And storms can land with more intensity depending on the categorization of the El Niño. NOAA predicts that this year’s storms have around a 75% to 80% chance of being “strong,” and that we will see “above average” rainfall.
Scientists are also predicting above-average temperatures throughout the winter months. This could result in higher tides, low-land and bay flooding, and erosion.
Brain Garcia, the National Weather Service’s warning coordination meteorologist, said one important caveat to keep in mind about rainfall predictions is that no one really knows how the rainfall will be spaced out over time. We could get lots of rain spread over three months, or it could fall in just one or two massive storms
“You have to be prepared for that whopper of a storm because that one storm could change your life forever,” said Garcia.
What happened last year?
Last year was the third La Niña year in a row. La Niña years—which bring colder water to the west coast of the Americas—have on average led to drier winters in Southern and Central California. However, last year was an exception. A succession of storms fed by atmospheric rivers drowned California in rain. According to NOAA, while these atmospheric conditions occur naturally, they may be exacerbated by climate change.
Consistently warmer temperatures along the Pacific Ocean feed these storms which can lead to higher precipitation levels, as was the case last year. As temperatures increase on average, so does the likelihood of these types of extreme weather patterns. NOAA reported that California’s winter storms were 1 of over 20 recorded weather disasters across the U.S. so far in 2023, each estimated to cost around $1 billion in damages.
Many Californians are accustomed to the swings between wetter and drier years. However, after numerous years of drought. California’s water infrastructure—as well as infrastructure overall— was ill-prepared to face the amount of rain that fell.
Cities across the state were flooded, levees broke, landslides ripped through residential areas, roads collapsed, and river banks overflowed with the onslaught of rain. The city of Oakland was one of many places that faced significant damage from the storms.
Residential flooding, creek erosions, and landslides were just some of the issues the city faced in January 2023. Between April and March of this year, the city released several reports on the extent of the damage and estimated costs for repair. In one report, city officials wrote that Oakland “does not have sufficient emergency restoration funds to address damages caused by the unexpected January Winter Storm Event. In preparation for the next severe weather event … it is crucial that the City set aside an emergency fund for [the public works department] and other departments to complete urgent restoration projects and repair damages that could impact City operations and the health and safety of Oakland residents.”
Kristin Hathaway, assistant director for Oakland Public Works’ Bureau of Environment, said last winter’s storms caused over 1,100 tree emergencies—mainly fallen trees and limbs. This was a significant increase over past years and cost the city $1.2 million.
“We were cleaning up tree issues from the winter storms through the summer,” said Hathaway. “We had to contract out to several firms to help us because the volume was just more than we can handle in-house.”
The bureau is still actively working to apply for FEMA assistance to mitigate the costs of the storms. They also have just two inspectors for the entire city to survey trees that may be at risk during a future storm event. The city is doing what it can to address any obviously risky trees that could topple.
“Pruning the entire urban forest, that’s not something we’re going to be able to do before this year’s storm events,” said Hathaway. So we’re working on controlling the things that we can control to make sure that we’re ready.”
The bureau can only address trees that are on public land. Hathaway stressed the importance of individual preparedness for people who might have a big tree growing near their home or a private driveway.
How can residents be prepared for future storms?
There are a variety of steps that homeowners, renters, and unhoused residents can take to be better prepared for severe winter storms.
Ready your home and street
Oakland homeowners should pay attention to the drainage systems around their houses. Make sure gutters, sidewalks, and ditches are clean and free of debris and obstructions. Clogged drainage pathways can exacerbate flooding. If you live in a low-lying area, sandbags around your home can help redirect stormwater away from your property and into the correct drainage pathway. If you have large trees on your property, make sure they are pruned properly to avoid damage from fallen limbs.
Stay informed and know your neighbors
Anyone can sign up for local alert systems to stay informed during environmental emergencies. Some municipalities have their own warning system along with statewide and national warning systems. Sign up for Alameda County’s alert system here.
Know your community’s resources. Many neighborhoods have area-specific resource groups on NextDoor or other social media channels that can keep you informed. Get to know your neighbors and make a plan to check on each other if a storm event is on the horizon.
Prepare emergency supplies
Extreme weather conditions can often lead to power outages. Be prepared to spend time in your home without adequate power. If your power goes out but you still have cellular service, you can access PG&E’s power outage map to check on how big a blackout is, and when electricity might be restored. Flashlights and lanterns are safer than candles for lighting your home during a power outage.
Having potable water, heating sources, and first aid kits on hand can be useful in the event of an outage or emergency.
Sandbags can be utilized to direct water away from homes and businesses. You can prepare by having a few of your own sandbags on hand. Sandbags can be purchased in advance at most hardware, landscaping, and home improvement stores. Oakland and Alameda County have free sandbags available at multiple locations throughout the county.
Winter shelters are available
There are a variety of resources available for unhoused individuals in Oakland and Alameda County. The county Office of Emergency Services has a list of open warming facilities which is updated in real-time. During the last winter storms, Oakland was able to expand its shelter capabilities to address increased capacity needs. Community members can call or text 211 or inquire about non-emergency resource referrals. MACRO—Oakland’s non-emergency response program—teams can also be contacted to make them aware of certain areas or unhoused communities that may need extra assistance during storm events.
Have a plan
A flood or other emergency could mean that you need to evacuate your home on short notice. Have a plan ready to gather essential supplies, items, and personal belongings. A “go bag” that’s packed in advance with clean clothes, toiletries, and other essentials is a good idea. Keep an emergency kit in both your home and car that can keep you prepared in case of a sudden emergency. FEMA has quick tip guides to keeping yourself safe during a flood. If you see a large flood area, turn around. Do not try to walk or drive through flooded areas.