Getting ready for El Nino

January 02, 1998


Staff Writer

Emergency services officials say they are prepared for whatever El Nino has in store for the Tri-State area this winter, while farmers are wondering what the weather phenomenon could mean for crop prices.

El Nino, which begins with a warming of eastern Pacific Ocean waters, has been blamed for a worldwide spate of weird weather, and if history is any indicator, it could spell trouble for the Tri-State area.

Each of the past three winters influenced by El Nino - 1996, 1993 and 1983 - were highlighted by at least one snow storm of more than 15 inches, according to local weather records.


National Weather Service meteorologist Julie Arthur said El Nino may or may not affect the area's weather. The current long term forecast for the Hagerstown area is actually for normal to drier than normal precipitation and normal temperatures.

Arthur said she wouldn't rule out a big storm.

"That's not out of the question. Anything could happen."

Local agencies say they'll be ready for just about anything.

"We have prepared our normal winter plan, and that encompasses whatever El Nino might give us," said Cindy Kline, emergency services director for the American Red Cross.

"You prepare for the worst but you hope for the best."

Kline said the Red Cross prepares for winter by surveying the county for shelter sites in case blizzards shut down the interstates or floods ravage homes. If a blizzard were forecast, the agency would make sure supplies were in place at shelter sites in advance.

"This is what the Red Cross is all about. We need to be prepared 12 months out of the year for whatever happens," Kline said.

"We always prepare for the worst," said Ted Wolford, Washington County transportation supervisor.

Washington County Cooperative Extension Agent Donald Schwartz said local farmers are asking a lot of questions about El Nino - especially how it might affect feed prices. In 1983 and 1993, America's corn belt had dry weather and smaller crops, which resulted in higher prices, Schwartz said. That would hurt area dairy farmers.

As for local weather, Schwartz said that if El Nino brings a warmer, wetter winter, it would help wheat and barley crops and replenish water supplies. It also could mean a good start to the growing season. But it also would mean messier conditions on the farm and more risk for animals to contract diseases.

Snowstorms don't start creating major problems for farmers until they reach about 20 inches, Schwartz said. Farmers have equipment to handle most storms, but a blizzard could prevent milk and feed trucks from getting in and out of the farms.

Emergency services officials in Franklin County, Pa., and Berkeley County, W.Va., said they haven't done anything special for El Nino.

"We're just going about business as usual," said Dennis Monn, with the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency.

Steve Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services, agreed.

"We are constantly preparing for weather events," he said.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency sent an advisory to counties to take extra precaustions in preparing for this winter because of El Nino.

Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the state is more worried about storms affecting the eastern part of the state and expects major storms to mainly affect areas east of Frederick.

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