Despite all the bad publicity, last year's El Nino may have saved hundreds of lives and was a major boon to the economy, a new study by a leading climatologist indicates.

"If you treat it as an economic outcome for the country . . . most of the country benefited," says consulting climatologist Stanley A. Changnon.

Overall, the 1997-98 El Nino can be blamed for 189 deaths, but it saved nearly 850 lives that otherwise would have been lost, Changnon concluded.

And its $4.2 billion to $4.5 billion in damage is far outweighed by nearly $20 billion in benefits, he reports in the September issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

The El Nino weather phenomenon was blamed for major storms in California and deadly tornadoes in Florida. But it also produced an exceptionally mild winter in the North and blocked Atlantic Coast hurricanes.

El Nino is a periodic warming of the water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which shifts weather patterns arriving from that area and can affect the climate worldwide. La Nina, an abnormal cooling of the Pacific sea surface, is currently taking place. It also can affect the world's weather. La Ninas sometimes occur between El Ninos.

But although El Ninos are known to produce storms in California, they also tend to result in mild winters in the Midwest and reduce Atlantic hurricanes.

According to Changnon, as few as 100 people died in winter cold and storms during the 1997-98 El Nino, well below the recent average of 850. Generally mild temperatures "greatly reduced lives lost to extreme cold," Changnon wrote, and there also were fewer weather-related auto accidents and deaths in winter storms.

The mild temperatures also saved businesses and homeowners millions of dollars they didn't have to spend on heating fuel, Changnon said, though that also can be calculated as a loss for utilities. Lack of demand for heating fuel made oil a glut on the market, resulting in the price of gasoline dropping to as low as 80 cents a gallon in some parts of the country.

In addition to the economic benefits of the mild winter, Changnon reported, "Thousands went out of doors more, millions went shopping, many altered their types of recreation, and almost everyone enjoyed better health than in normal winters."