By Matt Pearce and Molly Hennessy-Fiske
May 24, 2015

Look east, California.

Five years of extreme drought have come to a dramatic end in Texas and Oklahoma as a month of heavy rains has replenished reservoirs, dampened parched soil across both states and unleashed floodwaters on vulnerable residents.

A downpour this weekend pushed rivers far over their banks in central Texas, where flooding devoured hundreds of rural homes between Austin and San Antonio. At least 2,000 people fled to emergency shelter as helicopters rescued residents from rooftops and bridges snapped apart like Graham crackers. At least one person was dead and three others were missing as of Sunday afternoon.

The nonstop Texas-Oklahoma rains are probably being influenced by a building El Niño in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, whose warm waters tend to bring rain to the southern U.S., said Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

If a full-blown El Niño develops, that could mean rain for Southern California next winter, and it could mean trouble too, he said.

“The headlines that you’re writing today about Texas and Oklahoma, you could be writing about California in January,” Patzert said. “There’s something to remember about El Niño — he’s a good boy and he’s a bad boy because he can deliver drought relief that’s much-needed. But all that water coming so fast is like trying to catch water out of a fire hose with a champagne glass.”

He also cautioned Californians against putting too much hope in El Niño to end the state’s drought.

“Everybody is thinking of El Niño as the great wet hope, as the great drought buster,” he said. “The building El Niño is having some impact on the heavy weather we’re seeing in Oklahoma and Texas, but we’re a long way from seeing the equivalent rains in California next winter.”

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