FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Firefighters waded through knee-high floodwater Tuesday to rescue a woman stranded in her minivan as muddy runoff gushed to the tops of her tires.
It was the latest in a series of October storms that could provide a preview of what's in store in the coming months as an El Nino system moves in and threatens to bring unstable weather to the Southwest.
The dramatic rescue played out north of Phoenix, where Cindy Musselman said there was just a little water on the road when she tried to cross a desert wash.
"It went whoosh," she said of the rapidly rising water. "It caught me."
Here are some facts about the coming El Nino phenomenon, which happens every few years when the Pacific Ocean warms up around the equator:
EL NINO IMPACTS
Heavier snowfall and rain raise the risks of power outages, people getting stranded, hazardous driving conditions, ice dams forming on roofs and threats of flooding in streams and rivers. The higher rainfall totals in some places mean there are fewer hard freezes, leading to winter vegetables faring better.
El Nino doesn't necessarily mean winter storms will be more intense but they will be more frequent, said Tony Merriman of the National Weather Service. For example, the mountain city of Flagstaff, Arizona, has an average of nearly two dozen days with 2 inches of snow or more during strong El Ninos. It normally has 15 such days.
CALIFORNIA AND THE DROUGHT
California is bracing for a rainy winter, potentially easing the drought while creating new problems such as flooding and mudslides.
More precipitation than usual is expected during the critical time that the state's reservoirs usually fill, but there are no guarantees when it comes to the drought.
Even the wettest winter on record — 33 years ago — didn't have enough rain to overcome the current four-year drought, said hydrologist Alan Haynes of the California Nevada River Forecast Center.
The storms that struck Arizona were not El Nino-related and were instead the result of a low-pressure system, said Ken Waters of the National Weather Service in Phoenix.
Still, the torrential downpours, lightning strikes and hail around the state raised awareness of what could be an eventful weather season.
Forecasters say desert cities in Arizona can expect more rain, while mountain locations could get heavier rain or snowfall as a result of El Nino. However, El Ninos also can be unpredictable and produce little rain.
"It's just as variable as anything else," said meteorologist Valerie Meyers.