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County begins preparation for El Niño winter

LOS ANGELES — Stockpiling sandbags, cleaning storm drains and launching a website with real-time weather data — available in 83 languages — are among the measures authorities are taking in preparing for a potentially record-setting El Niño event, the county Board of Supervisors learned Oct. 13.

“L.A. County residents may be asking what L.A. County government is doing to protect them and what they can do to protect themselves,” said Jeff Reeb, director of the Office of Emergency Management.

Reeb and representatives from the fire, sheriff’s and public works departments assured the board that they are ready to respond to possible torrential rains, flooding and debris flows in what could be one of the biggest El Niños to date.

Deputies and firefighters are stocking and distributing sandbags and public work employees have been clearing out thousands of debris and catch basins.

Swift water search-and-rescue teams will be strategically located throughout the county and deputies stand ready to shut down roads and conduct evacuations if needed.

Teams of social workers and deputies will reach out to individuals in homeless encampments to encourage them to relocate to temporary shelter in advance of major storms. And the county is opening up more shelter beds and opening them on a 24-hour basis.

But the biggest challenge may be reaching residents unsure of what to do next.

So the county has created a website, www.lacounty/gov/elnino, which can be accessed from any smartphone and “updated from anywhere at anytime,” county Public Information Officer David Sommers told the board.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she wasn’t sure that residents searching for answers would think of the county first.

“Ninety-nine percent … of the people who live in the county don’t know what the county does,” Kuehl said.

Twitter will also be critical as a “mass communication tool,” Sommers said.

The county is asking agencies and residents to use the Twitter hashtag #LARain and an easy-to-use Twitter link is included on the county’s El Niño website.

Kuehl said, “Facebook is going to be very important.” She also urged staffers to “make sure that every radio station knows how to get information.”

Those less comfortable with web-based technology may call (800) 675-4357 for updates and to report problems, Public Works Director Gail Farber said.

“Given the sheer size of the county, we also rely on the public to be the eyes and ears of the county,” Farber told the board. She reminded everyone that “reporting smaller problems as soon as they occur can prevent them from becoming larger incidents.”

As with any big storm, residents should expect water, mud or debris on streets, downed tree limbs and broken traffic lights, Farber said. She urged Angelenos to be prepared with an emergency kit and ready to evacuate if necessary.

Another critical challenge will be coordinating aid across 88 cities and multiple law enforcement and fire agencies.

Supervisor Don Knabe said he “still [has] the nightmares of the Edison windstorm” and the “disjointed response” to massive power outages in 2011.

Knabe urged aggressive outreach to city officials and managers.

However, El Niño may offer some upside. Farber told the board that billions of gallons of water could be captured through the county’s flood control system and used to refill local aquifers.