Forecast of 16-foot swells prompt California coast to brace for floods

While much of this week’s weather worries have been focused on the storm’s rain impacts, a massive swell is brewing that could spell trouble for the region’s coastline through Friday evening, Jan 6.

Forecasters are calling for waves anywhere from 8 feet to 16 feet at west-facing beaches, which combined with a morning high tide of about 6 feet could mean flooding and erosion along the coastline., a Huntington Beach-based surf forecasting company, is calling it one of the largest westerly swells in the past 15 years.

Coastal city crews are prepping for damage or keeping a close eye on potential problem areas as the swell starts to show – it is expected early Thursday and to strong through Friday. Summertime can see similar swells of this size, but they usually come from a different direction, this is more uncommon for winter.

The National Weather Service issued warnings and advisories due to the high surf and potential for coastal flooding for noon Thursday through Friday morning along Los Angeles County and through Friday evening in Orange County and San Diego County.

For Orange County, waves are expected to reach 8 feet and even up to 13 feet from the winter west swell expected to slam the coast. Because of the swell’s direction, waves in southern San Diego could reach upward 16 feet, said Brian Adams, meteorologist for the Nation Weather Service.

Sand pushed into the Aliso Beach parking lot in South Laguna Beach when big waves and high tides slammed the coast in 2021. A worker used heavy machinery to scoop the sand out of the lot. (Photo by Laylan Connelly/SCNG)

“Especially since we have this high surf combined with the higher tides, we certainly could be looking at some nasty coastal flooding issues,” he said. “There’s going to be very high water levels on the beach, not a lot of shoreline areas. A lot of the parking lots and roads at lower elevation could definitely see some flooding in those areas.”

Some trouble areas sufferings severe erosion in recent years that has diminished sand buffers in Orange County include Seal Beach, around the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, Aliso Beach in Laguna Beach and Capistrano Beach and Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. These stretches of shore are particularly susceptible to flooding when high surf combines with high tides.

Erosion in those areas could worsen, Adams said.

“Unfortunately this is only going to exacerbate those issues, since the water level will be so high,” Adams said. “High tide will take sand out with it. It’s only going to add issues for coastal erosion.”

With recent rains flowing toward the coast and filling into harbors, there could also be trouble along Pacific Coast Highway through Sunset Beach and on Balboa Island and the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach.

“Turn around, don’t drown,” said Ariel Cohen, another National Weather Service meteorologist. “That refers to when people are driving and see flood waters. You don’t know how deep it is and that can result in some significant damage and a potential threat to life and property. It’s important people be aware and be safe.”

Waves in Los Angeles County could reach an estimated 12 feet to 16 feet starting Thursday and into Friday, he said.

“Those dangerous surf conditions will increase risk for drowning and rip currents, and large breaking waves that can cause injury,” Cohen said. “The strongest threat for the highest impact potential are at the northern parts of the county, all of them will have dangerous surf conditions.”

Although conditions will be gloomy and dreary and most people will stay clear, surfers looking to brave the big surf should use caution, Adams said.

“You definitely want to play it safe and know your limits,” he said. “There will be a high rip current risk.”

Also, fishermen should stay clear of jetties and people should be careful on tidepools due to waves that can overtake rocks.

Another risk of getting in the water comes from high bacteria levels following urban runoff flooding into the ocean. Rain advisories are in place both in Los Angeles and Orange County, with warnings that people should stay clear from the ocean for 72 hours after storms.

Big waves crash into the jetty as people fish at the end of the pier in Redondo Beach on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

A slipping slope from erosion along the coastal rail line through southern San Clemente that has caused a months-long shuttering of passenger train service held up well against recent rains and king tides, said Orange County Transportation Authority spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

“The rain is slowing the construction progress, but the contractor will try to minimize delays and we still hope to have service restored next month,” he said. “Please note, the schedule remains subject to change depending upon weather moving forward.”

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Many coastal cities, including in the South Bay, Long Beach and south through San Clemente have built up sand berms in preparation for winter storms.

Huntington Beach officials sent out an email advising residents in low-lying areas to “prepare for the potential for localized flooding and to remain vigilant of hazardous storm conditions.”

The city has deployed additional resources to assist residents and businesses with preparations and offered free sandbag filling stations for residents and businesses at Edison Community Center, the Warner Fire Station and the Huntington Beach Corporate Yard.

“Due to expected high tide and surf, staff is conducting ongoing inspection and reinforcement of the berm located in Sunset Beach to safeguard residents and property,” city officials said. “At this time, there are no beach or pier closures in effect. Marine Safety will be monitoring beach and pier conditions and will issue closures, if necessary.”

Newport Beach also has maintenance crews out in the field to deploy quickly if a response to flooding is needed, but major flooding is not anticipated based on the forecast, city spokesperson John Pope said. “The tide is high, but not super high, king level, and the berm should be high enough to stand against the swell.”

OC Parks spokesperson Danielle Kennedy said staff will be monitoring the tides and will assess conditions at county beaches if more response becomes necessary. said the “bombing” incoming swell is one of the five largest west-northwest swells of the last 15 years, with potential of being the largest.

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen a swell of this magnitude on the charts,” an update on the website says.

The westerly direction of the swell means areas typically shadowed by offshore islands could see big waves and south-facing points that normally lie dormant this time of year could come alive.

“When compared against benchmark events, like the solid west swell from February of 2008, this one has a realistic chance to be larger,” Surfline’s website says. “While we are of high confidence Thursday into Friday will see one of the top five largest west-northwest swells of the last 15 years, there’s potential it could be the largest.”

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