In early January of 1998, I was on the road.
So was the rain. Lots of it. And that rain became a churning torrent of water, soil and debris that came crashing down the course of what we normally call the Russian River. It became more like a liquid dragon mad with fury as it rushed past, breaking off a portion of the highway that ran alongside it and sending it down the hillside somewhere between the coast and Highway 101.
Fortunately, one lane was left to accommodate alternating traffic, and although it required a bit of a wait, I was able to get through.
That was in 1997, the famed mega-El Niño to which this year is being compared — at least in terms of the climate models. But it was only the latest in a string of wet years and storm series that have wreaked havoc on the Golden State over the years.
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Los Angeles, for example, got 31 inches of rain in the El Niño winter of 1997-98, but that total is dwarfed by the 66 inches that fell there in 1861, more than four times the city’s normal amount.
And it wasn’t just in Los Angeles. Rainclouds carrying warm moisture in January followed cold arctic storms in December, melting a good deal of the snow in the Sierra Nevada and sending a wall of water coursing downward into the Central Valley.
A whole settlement of Chinese miners was swept away by the Yuba River, and according to one account, the swollen Feather River carried away “bridges, camps, stores, saloon, restaurant and much real-estate.” As the waters rose, residents drowned in those rivers and others, and humans weren’t the only casualties: By the time it was over, an estimated 200,000 cattle had drowned.
The Central Valley, a low-lying basin between the Sierra and the Coast Ranges, became a catch pool for rainwater as well as river water rushing down from the mountains. Tulare Lake, a now-dry lowland sink in the Tulare-Kings counties area, became an inland sea up to 30 feet deep, with the waters covering farmland, settlements and barns.
Sacramento was so badly flooded the Legislature had to convene in San Francisco.
Too much at once
But it’s not just the amount of water that can be dangerous. It’s how prepared the state’s residents are to deal with it — and just how fast and furiously it accumulates. A lot of rainfall condensed into a short period is much harder to deal with than a steady but extended rainy season stretched out over several months.
The February rains in 1998 were so intense that, according to PG&E meteorologist John Lindsey, rain fell every single day of the month through Feb. 24. Three years earlier, of course, the worst happened in Cambria: 8.31 inches fell in 24 hours, and water raged down the hillsides to form a pool 10 feet deep near Windsor Boulevard. Main Street in the West Village became a river.
Cambria wasn’t the only SLO County community to experience this: Massive flooding followed epic storms that hit in 1885, 1969 and again in 1973 here. The 1969 deluge, over just two days, dropped 10.5 inches on San Luis Obispo, and the storms of four years later dropped nearly as much in a three-day period.
Something similar happened to Los Angeles three times: in 1914, 1934 and 1938.
Forty-three people died in a Feb. 20, 1914, flood that destroyed 10 bridges and 30 homes in the Arroyo Seco area of Los Angeles. (A month earlier, a deluge dropped 8 inches of rain on San Luis Obispo County, and Arroyo Grande Creek became a monster that destroyed railroad bridges and sent homes along its banks plunging into the waters.)
But New Year’s Day 1934 was even worse: 7.31 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles in just 24 hours. The Los Angeles River burst its banks, producing what the Associated Press called “a maelstrom of mud and water” that left 200 homes buried and 400 others uninhabitable.
Four years later, it happened again: During a week spanning late February and early March of 1938, rainclouds unleashed 4.4 inches of rain on the area, again pushing the river to the breaking point.
“Property damage ran into the millions as bridges broke, highways sank, homes collapsed, commercial houses swam, and gardens and ranches were flooded,” the Santa Ana Register reported.
As many as a dozen people were on a footbridge over the river’s mouth in Long Beach when it collapsed, plunging the pedestrians into the fast-running waters. Some were swept out to sea.
In Orange County, the Santa Ana River breached its levees and flooded five cities, including Anaheim. And the rains were even heavier in San Bernardino County, where nearly 10 inches fell over six days. A dam on the Santa Ana River burst in Riverside, sending a 5-foot wall of water into an old, dry channel.
The flood spurred a 20-year process of upgrading the channel to make sure the disaster would never happen again. According to Blake Gunbrecht in the “The Los Angeles River, Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth,” contractors used 800,000 dump trucks of earth, 3.5 million barrels of cement and 147 million pounds of reinforced steel and 460,000 tons of stone to line the channel in concrete.
Today, the L.A. River carries barely a trickle of water: Scenes from “Grease” and one of the “Terminator” movies were filmed in its dry bed.
Farther north that same year, the dried-out Tulare Lake filled anew, swelling to 350 square miles as it flooded crops and swamped Dust Bowl migrants’ farm encampments. Migrants who weren’t displaced by the waters had to contend with unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease. But just as the L.A. flood offered incentive to modernize the river channel there, Tulare Lake flooding in 1938, ’52 and ’55 provided the impetus for flood-control projects along three rivers that fed that basin.
Changes have also better prepared Cambria for any repeat of the flooding that took the community by storm, so to speak, in 1995, with pumps in place to drain water from the West Village area that was so badly inundated.
It’s a good thing, too. According to Lindsey, “this year’s event could be the strongest El Niño on record” and “will surely be among the top three El Niño events since 1950.”
We’ve shown a capacity to learn from history. Now it’s time to prepare for another chapter.