THE BLOG
12/17/2015 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2016

El Niño's Promise of a Wet California Winter Could be Costly and Dangerous

Our nation experiences some of the most extreme and dangerous weather in the world, and this winter, California faces a particularly severe threat. Forecasts are showing a strong and peaking El Niño that could deliver drenching conditions to the state and throughout the South. These predicted conditions come with an enhanced flood threat through the spring.

Making matters worse, much of the landscape in California today is already dry and parched, due in part to historic drought and recent wildfires. This hard, packed soil, combined with vegetation loss and burn scars on the earth, can cause extensive runoff because rainwater and snowmelt won't effectively be absorbed into the ground. The runoff could turn into destructive flash floods and mud slides, making it vitally important that people are aware and prepared for what conditions may come in the next few months and beyond.

So, while we're beginning to see signs of relief after four long and difficult years of extreme drought, we must be prepared to respond to the hazards that increased snow and rain can present to our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. In the short term, more accurate weather forecasts, coupled with actions taken by cities and households to prepare for severe weather, could save lives, property, and build more resilient communities. In fact, research shows that those who are informed and ready when hazardous or extreme weather threatens rebound more quickly and recover more fully from disasters.

If there was ever a year for families in California to take action to prepare for severe weather and flooding, this is the year. One way to do so is by purchasing flood insurance. Flooding remains the most common and costly disaster we see in America, even in non-El Niño years. Being insured can protect homeowners financially from this common hazard. Flood insurance is not typically included in standard homeowner policies. You cannot get flood insurance at the last minute. It usually takes about 30 days to take effect, so the time to take action is now. FEMA's FloodSmart.gov contains information about your community's specific threat from flooding and connects you to insurance agents that can help you get covered.

There's more that California residents should do now to prepare themselves for the impact of severe weather. Now is the time to put together a family communication plan. Disasters don't always occur when families are together in one place. Talk with your family about ways to contact each other during an emergency and designate a safe meeting spot. Plan ahead by knowing official evacuation routes, and keeping important papers in a safe, waterproof place. Additional tips and resources on how to stay safe and prepare are available at ready.gov.

Science tells us that climate extremes may become the 'new normal' for the West Coast. As such, we can expect more drought, wildfires and other natural disasters to occur while we build, grow, and prepare our communities to be more resilient to change. We must strive to keep people, property, and critical infrastructure out of harm's way, protect the capacity of floodplains to absorb floodwaters when pounding rain pours down, and empower Americans to thoughtfully prepare for hazards early and conserve water and other vital natural resources wherever possible.

As the United States works to become a Weather-Ready Nation -- one that is resilient to extreme weather -- it's helpful for people to review how family and community resiliency grows from a combination of accurate forecasts, and individual knowledge and preparedness. Building resilient families, communities, and businesses is at the heart of our work at NOAA and FEMA. We ask Californians to get ready for winter, and remain prepared throughout the season for floods, continued drought and wildfire risks, and any other extreme weather it might bring.

This post was co-authored by Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator and Craig Fugate, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency