During a California dry spell, some ask, 'What El Nino?'

In cautionary move, record flood insurance policies ahead of El Nino's punch

As Californians brace for increased El Nino flood risks, a record rise in national flood insurance policies was reported for the last four months of 2015, according to figures released Tuesday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Flood Insurance policy
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Flood Insurance policy

There were more than 285,000 National Flood Insurance Program policies in California as of Dec. 31 last year. That's a gain of nearly 25 percent from the number of policies as of Aug. 31 last year. The 25 percent rise is the largest four-month jump for California since the flood insurance program was created in 1968.

"What we're really encouraged about is people are taking steps to prepare themselves," said Mary Simms, a FEMA spokeswoman.

Although the agency doesn't directly correlate all flood insurance policies to El Nino, FEMA has already seen 127 flood insurance policyholders submit claims in California during January 2016, compared with only one claim submitted in the state for January 2015, which was a non-El Nino year, Simms said.

So far, prices for flood insurance aren't rising due to increased demand amid El Nino. However, prior legislation signed into law in 2014 calls for gradual rate increases as subsidies that previously impacted what consumers pay are gradually going away, Simms explained.

What El Nino?

One of the biggest speed bumps to preparing for El Nino's effect has been intermittent rain and dry spells on the West Coast — not steady downpours — that can trigger complacency about weather-related risks. But experts warn the impact of El Nino is far from over.

"If we use the last El Nino season of 1998 as a guide, it was not until spring that we saw damages that warranted a presidential declaration" of a disaster, Simms said.

"It has not been uncommon during past strong El Nino events to go through drier periods, even during the winter months," said Scott Carpenter, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service, in a prepared statement. "A change in the weather pattern around the last week of February may start bringing the storm track farther south and across more of California into March."

Read MoreCalifornia farmers shore up for El Nino

Business impact

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.

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

For small businesses, a big priority is "continuity planning" or strategies to ensure operations keep running in case of a flood or power outage, says Ken Katz, property risk control director at Travelers.

Roofs as always are a big priority amid persistent rainfall. "The key message is you need to get up there and look at gutters to ensure you're prepared for the coming rains," Katz said.

Hardware stores in the San Francisco Bay area are doing good business selling tarps and modern gel-based versions of sandbags. "We've been stocking up on supplies that people need for El Nino," said Julia Strzesieski last month. She works for Cole Hardware in the bay area.

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

Meanwhile, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center forecasts climate anomalies associated with El Nino are expected to result in at least minimal improvements to the drought conditions across much of California and western Nevada through the end of April. Many regions in the state are at increased flood risk from El Nino as a direct result of drought and wildfires.