Sree's Stories

TAKING IN THE SITES / By SREENATH SREENIVASAN

Forecast on the Web: More El Niño Sites

February 16, 1998
Pg. D3
Jeff Cohen has grown to appreciate the Internet immensely over the last
couple of weeks. As an information officer at a state flood emergency
operations center in Sacramento, Calif., he relies on the World Wide Web
to help provide accurate, timely information to concerned homeowners and
the news media.

The center deals with the catastrophic damage caused by the floods, mud
slides and storms that have hit California. Mr. Cohen knows what to blame
for the unusual weather: El Niño, the warm body of water in the Pacific
Ocean that causes global "weather events." And he uses the Web to gain
access to the latest data and articles while he operates a phone line.

"The Web is a great tool for responding to emergencies," said Mr.
Cohen, an employee of the state's Department of Water Resources. By
constantly updating his bookmarks, he is able to "create a solid base of
information," he said. "This is different from previous emergencies
because even though we had a lot of information on our desks, it was
buried in a file two inches thick. With the Web, it's fresh and easier to
access."

Mr. Cohen is right about sites concerning El Niño: there are plenty of
them. But unless you navigate carefully, much of your time could be spent
staring at satellite images that are indecipherable to all but
meteorologists.

The site of The Old Farmer's Almanac explains the basics of the
phenomenon, starting with the name (which is the Spanish word for "little
boy" that is used to refer to the baby Jesus, and was applied many years
ago to the weather condition because it was first noticed by Peruvian
fisherman around Christmas). The Almanac has a link to a section of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that goes into technical
detail, but it still has some easy-to-understand areas including a handy
set of links to El Niño-related news pages.

El Niño.com would seem to be an obvious place to visit. It is a site
from The San Diego Daily Transcript, a local business newspaper, and its
information is heavily San Diego-centric. That makes it of little use
outside California, since much more than just that state has been affected
by El Niño.

Everything from tornadoes in Miami to the warm winter in parts of the
Northeast to fires in Indonesia to drought in Africa has been traced to
it. To grasp the world-wide impact, see the Cable News Network's maps that
allow you to click and learn about specific parts of the United States and
the world. A visit to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology provides a look at
El Niño from outside the United States and is one of many sites that
explains La Nina (little girl) or the anti-El Niño, which is the abnormal
cooling of parts of the Pacific.

Two news sites that offer useful perspectives are the Environmental
News Network and Nova Online. E.N.N.'s site uses photographs and Real
Audio software to tell the story of El Niño events through the years. Nova
Online, the companion site of the science television series on PBS, has a
wide range of features on tracking El Niño, including field reports,
frequently asked questions and Web cameras in various cities.

The Web provides practical information about handling the effects of El
Niño. Mr. Cohen's Water Resources Department offers weather forecasts,
flood warnings and even "how to fight flooding at home." The Federal
Emergency Management Agency's site has a special area about the current
situation.

Businesses of all sizes are also keeping track of El Niño. Some
insurance companies have put up sections about it on their sites. For
instance, Factory Mutual, a property-loss engineering company that is
owned by three insurance companies -- Allendale Mutual Insurance,
Arkwright Mutual Insurance and Protection Mutual Insurance -- tells
visitors how to prepare their businesses for El Niño's "possible effects."
Among the topics covered: historical El Niño loss data and how to deal
with such problems as flooding, freeze-ups and roof collapses.

A small-company site that has gotten into the act is Rochester Tent
City, a camping store in Rochester. It has an El Niño Preparation Center
filled with terrible warnings of "billions in damage expected on West
Coast," and quotes Government officials, including Vice President Al Gore
and Senator Barbara Boxer from California. The goal is to encourage
visitors to buy such emergency supplies as life boats and water purifiers
through its on-line store.

On the Web, there is always someone who will find some humor in any
situation, and El Niño is no exception. The "El Niño Hotline of Doom," has
a "hype gauge" and a collection of more than 300 dire predictions from
media outlets nationwide.

Unfortunately for the dozens of people who call the operations center
where Mr. Cohen works, many of those predictions have turned out to be
true.

"WHERE TO GO"