Flood-prone Newport Beach is getting ready for El Niño

Among other measures, Newport Beach workers will be checking the sea walls surrounding Newport Harbor to repair major holes or cracks ahead of El Nino.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

With weather forecasters expecting that Southern California will face one of the most severe El Niños on record this winter, city officials in flood-prone Newport Beach are busy preparing for heavy rains.

Last week’s unseasonable storm brought about 2 inches of rain to Newport Beach and flooded a major intersection, rendering it impassable to motorists for about three hours.

Dave Webb, the city’s public works director, blamed a clogged storm drain cage. Once the blockage was cleared, the storm water flowed freely into the drain, he said.


Each September, the city begins removing debris from its roughly 90 miles of storm drains, but the drain that caused last week’s flooded intersection had not yet been cleaned, Webb said.

Last week’s burst of rain and the problems it caused for motorists served as a reminder that wet winters often bring flooding to low-lying coastal areas, including Newport Beach.

But city officials insist they’ll be ready this time.

In addition to cleaning storm drains, the city bought more than 10,000 sandbags to help residents protect their homes and is contacting mooring holders in the harbor to ask them to check hardware and anchors to make sure boats are secure during storms.

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Crews also have been inspecting traffic signals, checking private construction sites for erosion control, trimming trees to prevent them from falling during high winds and wrapping up road construction projects before the expected rain hits.

Officials also will be checking the sea walls surrounding Newport Harbor to repair major holes or cracks.

“We’re in better shape than we were many years ago,” Webb said.

El Niño storms are likely to cause headaches if heavy rain occurs in tandem with big surf and high tides, said Newport Beach utilities General Manager George Murdoch. In that case, coastal areas could see flooding, despite the city’s preparations.

“If the area has historically flooded in the past, then it’s likely to flood again,” Murdoch said.

Previous El Niños have caused flooding of roads on the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island, known during storms as the city’s bathtub.

“The water doesn’t naturally drain out, so we have to pump it out,” Webb said. The city has purchased additional pumps to aid in the effort.

Photos from the Balboa Island Historical Society of the 1982-83 El Niño season show people floating in canoes and inflatable rafts down streets of Balboa Island after one particularly severe downpour.

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During the winter of 1997-98, a series of storms flooded roads, caused mudslides and killed 17 people statewide. Forecasters expect this year’s storms to be comparable to that season.

Orange County averages about 14 inches of rain a year, but the El Niños brought it 33 inches of rain in 1977-78 and 31 inches in 1997-98.

Newport Beach’s city staff will give a report on its efforts to the City Council on Oct. 13, along with suggestions for homeowners, including cleaning drains, trimming trees and completing home repairs.

Webb emphasized that residents must continue to conserve water, even if El Niño is as strong as predicted, because it will take several wet winters to recover from the state’s persistent drought.

“People hear El Niño and think the drought is over,” he said. “It’s not over until we fill the reservoirs. We still need to do our part and conserve.”

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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