'Feast or famine': Businesses prep for El Nino after a drought

"We've been stocking up on supplies that people need for El Nino," says one San Francisco hardware store worker

From small solar power companies to regional hospitals in California, there's cautious preparation ahead of forecasts for El Nino-related weather this year, including heavy rain, mudslides and more.

"So far it's not the worst weather I've seen," said Gary Gerber, president and chief executive of Sun Light & Power, a solar energy equipment supplier based in Berkeley. Given solar work often happens outside on roofs, stretches of nice weather are key to its business. "It feels like a normal, nondrought year," Gerber said.

Gary Gerber is president and chief executive of Sun Light & Power, a design/build solar installation company based in Berkeley, Calif.
Source: Sun Light and Power
Gary Gerber is president and chief executive of Sun Light & Power, a design/build solar installation company based in Berkeley, Calif.

Across the bay in San Francisco, Julia Strzesieski works for Cole Hardware, which has been selling goods like tarps and modern sandbags in advance of severe weather. "We've been stocking up on supplies that people need for El Nino," she said.

From the San Francisco Bay Area down into the Central Valley and Southern California, businesses are shoring up supplies and disaster relief plans in case a weather trend known as El Nino delivers a forecast punch. "A strong El Nino is expected to gradually weaken through spring 2016," according to an update released last week from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

For now, much of the weather news is focused on the U.S. East Coast. Forecasts are calling for a "potentially paralyzing storm" headed for that region this weekend.

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Focus on barren land

Across industries, California businesses are monitoring weather, rainfall, rising river levels — and especially burned areas that are barren and susceptible to mudslides with excessive rainfall.

"Where we have the biggest concern is the burn areas," said Cheri Hummel, vice president of emergency management and facilities for the California Hospital Association. The trade group represents about 400 hospitals in the state.

And while regional hospitals have been preparing for El Nino for months, California often seems to have its share of natural disasters, including earthquakes, wildfires, floods and droughts. Disaster preparedness efforts for hospitals include ensuring emergency backup supplies of power, fuel and water.

"A few months ago it was drought, and now we're preparing for El Nino," said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokeswoman for the hospital association. "It's feast or famine."

Down in the Central Valley, in the middle of California, farmers are also tidying agricultural properties in advance of severe weather. Farmers are doing things like ensuring drains and creeks are cleaned and open.

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For agricultural regions, a big concern is four consecutive years of a drought that have created extremely parched land. When land is that dry, vast amounts of furious rainfall can only be absorbed at a certain pace with the remaining water leaving the land quickly susceptible to mudslides and cascading land.

"The land has been so dry for so long, it's almost impermeable," said Mary Simms, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. And like burned land, fallowed farm acres left to idle amid lack of water raises flash flooding concerns, Simms said.

The California drought in 2015 alone was forecast to result in the fallowing of 542,000 irrigated acres, according to an update last year from the University of California at Davis. Nearly all of that fallowed land was in the Central Valley.

Individual homeowners, of course, are also prepping for El Nino's reach.

California residents bought 28,000 new National Flood Insurance Program policies in advance of El Nino's risk, according to FEMA data released earlier this month. The agency is working with 80 private insurance companies to offer flood insurance to business owners, homeowners and renters.

"The major increase in flood policies show Californians are taking the threat seriously," said Robert Fenton, a FEMA administrator, in prepared remarks.

Read MoreCalifornia's El Nino floods keep roofers, insurers busy

Meanwhile, scientists this week said 2015 was the warmest year in recorded history. And the strong El Nino has continued into 2016, raising the possibility that this year will also set a global temperature record.

At least in California, all eyes now are on rainfall and El Nino's path.

A man stands at the edge of a road flooded by the San Diego river after heavy rains in San Diego on Jan. 7, 2016.
Bill Wechter | AFP | Getty Images
A man stands at the edge of a road flooded by the San Diego river after heavy rains in San Diego on Jan. 7, 2016.

Back over in Berkeley, Gerber of Sun Light & Power is calm about the weather and getting on with the business of running his shop that has been operating for 40 years. The business opened in 1976, when the solar market was nascent. "What market? There was no solar market then," he recalled.

But as always for a business that's based on working on roofs outside in a state like California, there's always weather in the peripheral vision. What Gerber doesn't welcome is massive, back-to-back rainfall. That's when work crawls and you can't catch a break. "But we're not experiencing that yet this year," he said.

In San Francisco, hardware store employee Strzesieski works with store owner Rick Karp, who owns a total of five locations in the Bay Area. One of their best sellers has been "Quick Dams," a gel-based lightweight barrier that when exposed to rain expands and acts like a sand bag. "We've had those about a month and sold 200 already," she said.

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