A storm is coming: USC prepares for El Niño

USC and the University Park area have been preparing for a particularly rainy spring.

El Niño, a weather phenomenon that occurs when warm ocean currents appear in the Pacific Ocean, typically leads to above-average rain in Southern California. For months, meteorologists have been predicting that this year’s El Niño season will end up among the largest on record.

Past El Niño events have been especially damaging to the Los Angeles area. In the 1998 season, the rains led to 17 deaths and more than 500 million dollars in damages in the city alone.

With tens of thousands of students attending class every day, living in University-owned housing and the ongoing construction of USC Village, the administration has adopted some strategies to ensure that the campus is prepared for the storms to come.

“Storm water management is incorporated into the design of the campus to limit rainwater run-off,” said Carol Fern, director of organization and methods administration for Facilities Management Services.

According to Fern, the University Park campus has been designed to reduce the rainwater runoff from the campus into the citywide stormwater catching system. The campus design incorporates gravel-filled wells that allow the rain to percolate into the groundwater as well as bioswales that filter the rainwater before it enters the municipal system.

Also among the University’s storm-preparedness process is ensuring that all facets of the campus design are working.

“This process includes cleaning roofs and gutters, drain grates and air-wells and testing systems which pump water from low-lying areas,” Fern said. “These areas are then re-checked when rain is forecasted.”

Under the leadership of the Office of  Fire Safety and Emergency Planning, the University has a special task force assigned with addressing the campus’ El Niño preparedness. The members of this task force include FMS, USC Capital Construction and the Department of Public Safety. All of the University’s building facilities managers are also included in El Niño-related communications.

But one of the most important concerns for the administration is protecting the continuing construction of the USC Village, the University’s current $700 million development.

“All construction projects adhere to the Stormwater Management and Pollution Control requirements,” Fern said. Those regulations require that stormwater not leave a construction site before going through a proper filtration process.

To provide adequate filtration, six French drains — or trenches filled with gravel — have been built on the USC Village site. Each drain at the site is eight feet across and 30 feet deep.

“These drains allow the rainwater to return to the water table instead of sending all of the water into drainage runoff,” said Eddie North-Hager, director of media relations, said.

USC has been in contact with a number of government agencies to ensure that the campus is prepared for the storm.

“Office of Fire Safety & Emergency Planning collaborates with the city of Los Angeles’s Emergency Management Department to plan for all hazards,” Fern said. “The University has a strong working relationship with the city and we are continuously discussing preparedness regarding various types of hazards including El Niño flooding.”

Beyond the campus, many governmental actors have gotten involved to ensure that University Park area residents are safe when El Niño peaks.

As early as November 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an Executive Directive that tasked a number of city agencies with responsibilities in preparing for El Niño. In particular, the EMD has played a lead role in developing a city-wide storm preparedness strategy that relies largely on education and outreach.

Among EMD’s collaborators on storm preparedness this season are the Red Cross and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. EMD also implements the Mayor’s directive by working with the Los Angeles county police and fire departments, and public works.

EMD spokeswoman Kathleen Hutton stressed that people in L.A. during El Niño visit ElNinoLA.com and sign up for emergency alerts from NotifyLA.org.

“[ElNinoLA.com]has information on how to prepare yourself, your family, your car and your home for wet winter weather,” Hutton said. “Additionally, we encourage everyone to sign up for emergency alerts from the City of L.A. by visiting NotifyLA.org. There you can register to receive text, voice or email alerts about emergencies from El Niño to our next earthquake.”

At the county level, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has been working with his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to prepare for El Niño.

Ridley-Thomas said, “The County’s Office of Emergency Management is working closely with the sheriff’s and fire departments as well as the Departments of Public Works, Public Health and Animal Control to make sure residents and businesses are prepared, and that the various county agencies are responsive to potential rain-related emergencies.”

But Thomas noted that the county’s El Niño priorities this season are not soley on damages but on providing resources to those who need shelter.

“This El Niño season, we are specifically concerned about the safety and well-being of the region’s growing homeless population,” Ridley-Thomas said.

According to Ridley-Thomas, he and his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors have funded an additional 1,600 shelter beds for the homeless in seven locations throughout the county. One of those shelters is in south Los Angeles.

While students should take precautions, they can rest knowing that the USC area is not considered to be in significant danger from El Niño.

“There are no particularly vulnerable sites in the North University Park area of which we are aware,” Ridley-Thomas said.

However, students are urged to serve as additional eyes on campus and report any El Niño-related emergencies to FMS, housing maintenance or DPS.

“The campus is patrolled during rain to identify issues, but it is a large campus,” Fern said.  “So, communicating areas of concern including flooded areas or leaks to FMS or Housing Maintenance will help us get the right personnel out to resolve the issue.”