According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), the strongest El Niño on record is expected to drench the southern part of the United States this fall and winter and bring above-normal temperatures to much of the Midwest region, particularly across the northern states. While this may be welcome news for the drought-stricken parts of the country, it may have a negative impact as well. Construction firms and design professionals will be among those who feel the effects.
A strong El Niño will likely cause major damage as it did during the 1997-98 storm season. The last strong El Niño occurred during that time, when severe storms caused flooding in the Southeast, ice storms in the Northeast, tornadoes in Florida, and flooding in California. In California, 35 counties were declared federal disaster areas. Those storms caused more than $550 million in damage and killed 17 people.
Heavy rainfall will cause some roofs to leak, and many roofing companies are already booked with projects through the winter. Heavy rains will also adversely affect the timber industry, possibly resulting in higher prices. El Niño will cause project delays by affecting soil conditions, impeding the delivery of materials, and making it harder for construction workers to get to work.
NOAA researchers estimated the total U.S. economic impact of the last major El Niño storm system in 1997 to be around $25 billion. However, El Niño also has a potential upside for the construction industry. An American Meteorological Society study published in 1999 found that the U.S. construction industry gained around $500 million in business after the storm. All those damaged buildings needed to be repaired. So delays during the storms may be countered with an upsurge in construction when the storms have ended.
There may also be an upsurge in litigation. The drought has actually caused a decline in construction defect litigation in California. Droughts decrease construction defect litigation because the decrease in rain reduces water intrusion and structural movement. Without rain, there’s no water intrusion into roofs, windows, stucco, and wood siding. There’s also a lack of structural movement caused by soil displacement, which can result in cracks in the drywall. Experts predict that construction defect litigation will pick back up once the state receives much needed rain since significant rain will help identify construction defects. The El Niño of 1997-98 resulted in more lawsuits in southern California than the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Many of these related to storm damage and slope failures.