The 2015-2016 El Niño had large impacts globally. The effects were not as great as anticipated in Kenya, however, leading some commentators to call it a 'non-event'. Our study uses a novel combination of participatory Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis tools, and new and existing social and biophysical data, to analyse vulnerability to, and the multidimensional impacts of, the 2015-16 El Niño episode in southern coastal Kenya. By using a social-ecological systems lens and a unique dataset, our study reveals impacts overlooked by conventional analysis. We show how El Niño stressors interact with and amplify existing vulnerabilities to differentially impact local ecosystems and people. The policy significance of this finding is that the development of specific national capacities to deal with El Niño events is insufficient; it will be necessary to also address local vulnerabilities to everyday and recurrent stressors and shocks to build resilience to the effects of El Niño and other extremes in climate and weather.