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Rain Heralds El Nino's Early Arrival in Southland


El Nino, the winter weather phenomenon that has absorbed scientists and amateur meteorologists for months, made its debut Thursday in Southern California, arriving earlier than some had expected.

The rainfall that slicked freeways and the surf that flooded some seaside homes were part of the first El Nino-related system in what could be a long storm season, National Weather Service officials said.

"I myself was looking to more like the middle [or] end of November," said Armando Garza, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service office in San Diego, which monitors Orange County.

Triggering the day's weather was Hurricane Nora, which dumped an inch of rain on Orange County and eroded beaches as it moved northeast out of Mexico and weakened to a tropical storm.

Like Hurricane Linda last week, Nora gained strength from warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures fostered by El Nino conditions.

"We could probably say that tropical moisture associated with the El Nino affected the southwestern United States for the first time today," Garza said.

Experts say this winter's storms could rival or even exceed those in 1982-83, when raging surf ripped apart sections of the Huntington Beach and Seal Beach piers and forced thousands of people along the cost to evacuate their homes.

"It definitely is a bigger El Nino than '82-83," said Victor Zlotnicki, a research oceanographer at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works with the Topex/Poseidon satellite that monitors sea levels.

Orange County could see 1 1/2 times as much rainfall as usual, forecasters said.

The weather phenomenon is named El Nino, Spanish for "the little boy," after the Christ child. It typically occurs near Christmastime.

Zlotnicki described it as a system of warm water, normally centered near Indonesia, that moves eastward and piles up against the west coasts of the American continents. The higher-temperature ocean waters become a breeding ground for storms.

The worst consequences of the El Nino are still to come, Zlotnicki said. "Californians will know it in December, January, February."

Orange County's coastal areas typically get 12 to 15 inches of rain from October to March, Garza said. That amount could rise to a "ballpark" 16 to 22 inches, he said. Several sites on the World Wide Web offer information, including:

More weather details are available from the local National Weather Service's Web site:

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