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From washed-up skulls to underwater trails, here are SLO County's 10 most extreme rain stories

Swollen San Luis Creek flows through Bob Jones Trail playground

Heavy rains on Thursday and Friday morning (January 19 and 20, 2017) pushed San Luis Obispo Creek over its banks and into roads, fields and even the playground along the Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach.
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Heavy rains on Thursday and Friday morning (January 19 and 20, 2017) pushed San Luis Obispo Creek over its banks and into roads, fields and even the playground along the Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach.

It's easy to forget that San Luis Obispo can get some pretty extreme weather, with the year-round sunshine and mild temps. But we've definitely had our brushes with massive flooding, destroyed public property and even a washed up skull or two.

So as we deal with a major storm for the Central Coast, here's a look back at some of the most extreme events when weather has been less-than sunny for San Luis Obispo County:

1. The one that felled bridges and knocked the ends off piers

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UNDER HIGUERA STREET: Mike McCluskey, SLO City public works director, leads a tour in December 1995, where San Luis Creeks flows under Higuera Street. Bishop Peak granite was quarried to make the walls. The city rebuilt the 87-year old bridge work. This is a time exposure using flashlights and strobe carried by the photographer. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In 1885, a storm costing roughly $100,000 in damage (more than $2.4 million in 2017 dollars) descended upon San Luis Obispo.

Overnight about nine inches of rain fell "without intermission," keeping many an anxious resident awake as they waited to see when the storm would cease.

Then around 2 a.m., the fire bell began ringing as San Luis Obsipo Creek rose to the steps of creek-side businesses, and knocked down bridges on Marsh, Osos, Morro and Nipomo streets.

Only the brand-new iron bridge on Chorro Street was saved (though it was damaged significantly.)

Over the ocean, the storm raged so fiercely it knocked several hundred feet off the roughly 900-foot-long Pismo and Cayucos wharfs.

Today, a small portion of the creek downtown is actually walled underground, in a channel lined in Bishop Peak granite — some say the reason is because of the 1885 storm and Tribune editor Myron Angel's call to wall up the creek.

Check out more of the original story here: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/photos-from-the-vault/article45913500.html

2. The one where someone found a human skull (and Arroyo Grande threatened to dis-incorporate)

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San Luis Obispo Tribune file photo of 1914 flooding in Arroyo Grande that knocked out an $8,000 steel bridge along the creek. From a collection by Josephine L. Brown, née Bailey.

By all accounts, 1914 was a rough year for SLO County: After a dry stint the year before, the rains came with a vengeance in January of 1914, flooding much of the county, knocking out power, stranding people in town and even damaging Branch Street in Arroyo Grande so badly that residents pushed to dis-incorporate so they wouldn't have to pay for the damage (they were ultimately unsuccessful).

Even more "grewsome" however, was when a human skull washed up from a grave at an Orcutt Road ranch; according to a report in The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, Walter Perozzi found the skull with some tissue still on the bone. (The coroner later said there was no evidence of foul play.)

Check out some of the original coverage here: http://sloblogs.thetribunenews.com/slovault/files/2011/06/1914-01-25-flooding.jpg.

3. That one time when almost a foot of water fell on SLO County — in just 2 days

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San Luis Creek rose turning Higuera Street into a river near Chorro Street on Sunday. Telegram-Tribune photographer David Ethridge made the image, later republished in a booklet. David Ethridge

In January 1969, a momentous flooding event occurred that has since served as the hallmark for all preceding SLO County storms: Over a two-day span, 10.53 inches of rain — more than half what the area would usually get in an entire year — fell on the county. At one point near the end of the torrential 48 hours, a full inch of rain fell in just 25 minutes.

Even more outstanding? The rains continued, on and off, for 12 days.

Five county bridges washed out the first day. Raw sewage spilled from Pismo Beach. Residents in Avila Beach used rowboats along First Street. Royal Farms lost 8,000 chickens to drowning. A tide of water injured two radio workers when it rushed through the window of the station. Families in Atascadero tore down a railroad barricade and filled in a road across the train tracks to evacuate themselves and their belongings.

A positive of all this wreckage: Arroyo Grande was largely spared much of the damage, due to the newly constructed Lopez Dam.

Check out some of the original coverage here: http://sloblogs.thetribunenews.com/slovault/2009/01/1969-floods-day-1-2/

4. The one that swept Union Pier, a group of 20 schoolchildren and Highway 1 into the ocean

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Winter of 1983 brought strong storms to the California coast. All 5 piers from San Simeon to Pismo Beach were damaged in this storm. One was demolished, the Union Oil pier in Avila Beach. Ken Chen

Between 1982-83, the Central Coast saw several major weather-related events.

First, a mudslide sent a portion of Highway 1 outside of Big Sur plunging 700 feet down Sycamore Draw into the ocean in March 1982, killing a Morro Bay man who was driving a skip loader along the road. About 2.7 million cubic yards of earth gave way in what was at the time the largest mudslide in California history.

The road wouldn't reopen until a year later

In February 1983, a wave flipped a 44-foot whale watching boat called the San Mateo in Morro Bay Harbor, sending 32 people, including 23 Flamson Middle School students into the churning water.

All the students were rescued, though two adults later died from injuries they sustained in the accident.

Finally in March 1983, storm waves collapsed the wooden Union Oil Pier (now the Cal Poly Pier) "like a freight elevator," sending three workers into the water. They were rescued by two men who had been on the beach at Avila looking toward the Union Pier when it went down.

The pier was later rebuilt with steel, but after Union Oil (later known as Unocal) shut down in Avila Beach, it was donated to Cal Poly for marine research.

5. The last big one

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Water rose to waist deep in Cambria's West Village thanks to flooding in March 1995. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The last major local and statewide flooding event in San Luis Obispo County is generally said to be in 1995 — and that year was one of its more fatal.

That year, four people were killed locally due to storm-related causes: one man hydroplaned and crashed into a culvert; a woman's Volkswagen bug washed into San Luis Creek, with her inside; a homeless man drowned under Marsh Street Bridge, trapped by the floodwaters; and finally, a county Public Works employee was killed when a 60-foot pine fell on his cherry-picker truck will clearing storm damage.

Damage throughout the county was also extensive.

Cambria was one of the hardest hit by the flooding — some reports say the Cambria Fire Department was even using a boat to rescue people along Main Street.

Almost 700 homes and 200 businesses sustained some sort of damage. SLO flooded near Laguna Lake. Atascadero reported about $3 million in damage. The Olive Street hillside in Paso Robles slid into several homes. And the site of James Dean's 1955 car crash in Cholame was almost entirely underwater.

6. The one with a dramatic rescue and narrow escapes

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Rescue workers stabilize a woman who scrambled to safety as was picked up by a neighbor after being swept away by flood waters along Upper Lopez Canyon, a second woman attempting to cross with her also escaped from the swollen creek while a 62 year-old man who was with them was still missing. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

December 2004 was described as "unusually wet" and numerous areas throughout the county reported large-scale flooding that month.

There were also several reports of people caught up in the swift moving floodwaters, described in one Tribune article from Dec. 31.

According to the article, a woman clung to a ribbon of fence in the overflowing San Luis Obispo Creek for more than 30 minutes before she could be rescued by firefighters. Firefighters later noted their surprise that she had hung on that long, considering the freezing cold water.

The same day, three people — two women and one man — were stranded in Lopez Canyon after trying to walking to their parked cars from a rural home along Upper Lopez Canyon Creek. Then the man fell into the water was swept downstream, along with one of the women who tried to help him. The second woman was able to get across the water and hike to a neighbor's house for help.

The first woman was eventually able to extricate herself from the creek and hike to another neighbor's house, but the man's body was later discovered at Lopez Lake.

(The article is no longer available online.)

7. The one when snow fell in Avila Beach

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At the Avila Beach Golf Resort the practice putting green was a blanket of white. A cold winter storm dropped a combination of snow and hail in the south county before sunrise on March 11, 2006. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The official stance is that it's never snowed in San Luis Obispo (or at least never to a recordable level) but snow definitely has fallen on areas of SLO County throughout the years.

Take March 2006 for instance, when a light dusting of that powdery white stuff was reported along the beaches from Pismo to Avila Beach.

At the Avila Beach Golf Resort the practice putting green was a blanket of white after the cold winter storm dropped a combination of snow and hail in the South County before sunrise.

It didn't last long however — most reports say the snow melted almost as fast as it could be photographed.

For more on SLO's snowy history, visit: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/weather/weather-watch/article203332869.html.

8. The one with raw sewage pretty much everywhere

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Courtesy photo of December 2010 flooding in Oceano; roughly a dozen residents had to be evacuated from the Lagoon area due to the flooding.

In December 2010, runoff from unusually strong storms overwhelmed many of the county's sewage systems, and more than 20,000 gallons of raw sewage was released across the county.

First 15,000 gallons were released into San Luis Obispo Creek, followed quickly by smaller spills into the Arroyo Grande Creek, Meadow Creek and Oceano Lagoon. Then another 1,000 gallons spilled into San Luis Creek in SLO, 515 gallons were released in Morro Bay, 750 gallons in Pismo Beach and 2,500 gallons in Avila Beach.

The heavy rains also forced an evacuation of roughly a dozen families in the Oceano Lagoon area, shut down several roads in both North and South County and had part of the Avila Beach Golf Resort's 18-hole course underwater.

(On the sewage front, only the next month, between 160,000 and 180,000 gallons of partially treated sewage would be accidentally released into the ocean at Oceano, starting a years-long legal battle with the state that only recently concluded.

For more on the December 2010 storm: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/article39140265.html.

9. The one where thunderstorms, lightning shattered the July rain record

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Morro Bay resident Steven Larson said he took this photo from his balcony about 1:30 a.m. He used a 30 second exposure and a 200 ISO shot in RAW. "I did my best to make it look dramatic, but realistic when I converted it to a jpeg. Other than that, it was just a lucky shot from my balcony," he said.

July is typically the driest month around San Luis Obispo County, but in July 2015 a surprising summer storm shattered the previous records in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.

Paso Robles tallied 3.55 inches of rain from the storm, a total that destroyed the previous the record for all of July, 0.59 inches in 1950, according to PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey. San Luis Obispo also set a new July record with 0.84 inches, exceeding the previous high of 0.46 inches in 1950.

The storm wasn't just record-breaking — it was dramatic.

Thunder shook the county as lightning burst overheard; according to reports at that time, lightning strikes knocked out power to more than 10,000 customers. At one point in the morning, SLOweather.com reported as many as 79 lightning strikes a minute across the county.

Summer campers reported a harrowing night with the thunder shaking theirs tents and lightning strikes putting on an intense light show.

To check out the original story, go here: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/article39057036.html.

10. The one where a hotel and the Bob Jones trail were underwater (and someone shredded on the streets of Grover Beach)

Heavy rains on Thursday and Friday morning (January 19 and 20, 2017) pushed San Luis Obispo Creek over its banks and into roads, fields and even the playground along the Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach.

It started with a wet wake-up call at about 8 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2017, when residents at the Seacrest Hotel in Pismo Beach were notified the hotel was flooded. First responders were at the hotel for a minor, unrelated call when they were greeted with a rush of water as their elevator opened on the first floor.

A few hours later, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort on Avila Beach Drive had to be evacuated as San Luis Obispo Creek began to rise, almost to the level of the stilted buildings.

By mid-afternoon, the flooding had spread to the Bob Jones trail behind the Avila Bay Athletic Club; the trail's playground area was almost entirely underwater with water flowing at least waist deep across other sections of the trail.

The rains actually continued for the next several weeks, prompting a "State of Emergency" declaration across the county.

That same month, an unidentified mystery surfer cruised down the flooded Grand Avenue in Grover Beach, taking advantage of the rainwater and min rapids rushing through town.

For the original story, go here: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/article127711409.html.

An unidentified man took the opportunity to surf — yes, surf — down a partially flooded Grand Avenue in Grover Beach on Sunday night.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct number of inches that fell on SLO County in a 1969 storm. It was 10.53.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie
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