Weather and Natural Disasters

Early El Niño Flood: Calls Overwhelm California Home Contractors

Molly Blake
Hull Brothers Roofing & Waterproofing resurface roofs at the Marina del Rey seaside community of Los Angeles, Aug. 25, 2015.
Damian Dovarganes | AP

El Niño—"the little one," in Spanish—sounds innocent enough, but coastal California homeowners are making big preparations for powerful winter storms made more likely by the weather phenomenon of the same name.

Residents are taking warnings about this year's El Niño—one of the strongest on record—so seriously that service providers responsible for battening down the hatches on homes and businesses say they are being inundated with calls.

"I've been in business for 30 years and I've never had proactive roof repair calls before," said John Kurz, owner of Kurz Roofing in Palo Alto, California. "People are picking up on the warnings."

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El Niño is a phenomenon in which warming sea-surface temperatures far out in the Pacific change normal wind cycles and alter weather patterns in the atmosphere worldwide. For California, that is expected to mean a "wetter-than-average" winter, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast last month.

And it could be quite a bit wetter than average.

Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the greater San Francisco Bay Area, extending as far south as Monterey Bay, could receive upward of 42 inches of rain this year. Normally, rainfall totals about 22 inches.

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Gass said it's heartening that Californians are heeding the warnings.

"We need to build a weather-ready nation," he said. "That means knowing the risks and mitigating as many potential issues as possible."

The problem, said Gass, is that preparations should have begun months ago, which is why many residents and businesses are now scrambling to locate a roof expert, gutter cleaner or tree trimmer.

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Ryan Saber, owner of Saber Roofing in Woodside, California, agrees that demand for his services has skyrocketed of late.

"No doubt, this El Niño has put more fear in people," said Saber.

"We changed our voicemail a few weeks ago and aren't taking any new customers," said Saber, a 32-year veteran of the roofing industry. "We are booked out on estimates until February and for actual work, we are booked until the summer."

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"People are begging and pleading for us to come out," he added. "There's too much work and not enough time."

Alman Grant, the owner of Arbor Task Tree Service, a San Diego based tree trimming company, said he's considering hiring some temporary workers to help cut back overgrown area pine and eucalyptus trees encroaching on power lines and threatening homes.

"We are getting calls constantly," said Grant who is also expecting a deluge of work once storms begin to knock down trees and branches that were never properly pruned.

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"It will be a feeding frenzy," said Grant.

Marlo Ruscigno had the roof of his San Marcos, California, home repaired in August when an inspection revealed a leak. With predictions of a strong El Niño already making the rounds, he decided to have it patched.

"As a California native, I can say this is a typical cycle following droughts, so it all seemed to lend itself to our decision," said Ruscigno.

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A Silicon Valley startup called Groovice (that's group + service) is offering one nifty solution to the backlog of much needed repairs. It lets neighbors bundle similar service calls for services like gutter cleanings, fireplace inspections, weather stripping repair and roof assessments.

In one case, Mountain View, California, neighbors banded together and enabled a gutter-cleaning crew to complete 13 homes in one day, well beyond the company's normal capacity.

"The service call professional went from one house to the next," Wayne McVicker, Groovice's CEO. "Our premise is that we ask what people wanted to get done, and then work to balance supply to meet that locally grouped demand."

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The demand has shown no sign of letting up, according to a spokesman for the home-service website Taskrabbit. He said the site has seen a 25 percent increase over the past 30 days in Los Angeles and San Francisco for tasks like gutter cleaning and drain clearing.

Gass cautions Californians to remember that the winter season runs all the way through April. That means even if November and December are dry months, January and February can still see "record breaking rain."

"Don't let your guard down," he said.