By Alex Dobuzinskis and Phoenix Tso
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As California braces for torrential downpours this winter from El Nino, authorities have stockpiled extra sandbags across the state while putting hundreds of personnel through flood-control training, officials told state lawmakers on Wednesday.
Water engineers and emergency managers addressed a state Senate hearing in Los Angeles on preparations for the El Nino phenomenon, a recurring climate pattern that warms parts of the Pacific and is expected to bring severe weather to California and other regions.
The latest El Nino, with forecasts of powerful winter storms and drenching rains, is seen as a mixed blessing for California, which is struggling through the fourth year of a record drought.
Forecasters have said El Nino may ease the drought but is unlikely to end California's water crisis. It also poses a risk of devastating floods and mudslides, especially in areas recently stripped of vegetation by wildfires.
One in five California residents lives in a floodplain, said Salomon Miranda, an engineer for the state Water Resources Department, who testified at the hearing.
"Catastrophic flooding happens during droughts," Miranda said.
The water agency has trained 1,200 state employees in flood-control techniques, and authorities have placed supplies of sandbags, wooden stakes and plastic sheeting in flood-prone areas, he said.
Gary Hildebrand, a deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, said 82,000 catch basins in the county had been cleaned out to help channel stormwater runoff away from homes and streets.
'GET READY IN MALIBU'
William Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, testified that El Nino-spawned flooding could be severe but would likely be localized to coastal zones and other low-lying areas.
"Get ready down in Malibu and all along the Orange County coast for a big battering from El Nino," Patzert said.
The last two El Ninos, in the winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98, each walloped Los Angeles with more than 30 inches (76 cm) of rain, far above the roughly 15 inches (38 cm) the second most populous U.S. city receives annually on average, he said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials urged California homeowners this month to buy flood insurance in advance of heavy El Nino rains if they did not already have it.
Since 1978, nearly 40 percent of all paid flood insurance claims in California stemmed from property damage inflicted during four El Nino years, according to FEMA.
The conditions forecast for this El Nino have yet to materialize in California, but it has already been linked to an unusual northern migration of a number of fish species, such as hammerhead sharks and blue marlin, that have followed the spread of warming currents to California's coast.
The most attention-grabbing transplant was a reptile. A yellow-bellied sea snake washed up on a beach in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles, on Oct. 16 and died that day. It was the first documented appearance of the venomous species in California since 1972, said herpetologist Greg Pauly of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
"This is not a snake people need to be freaking out about," said Pauly, adding the snake's mouth and fangs were too small to significantly harm humans.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)