Photos from the Vault

1982’s downpour stranded travelers, left San Luis Obispo in darkness

A driver maneuvers cautiously on Morro Street during one of the torrential downpours that caused flooding and power outages throughout San Luis Obispo County in December 1982.
A driver maneuvers cautiously on Morro Street during one of the torrential downpours that caused flooding and power outages throughout San Luis Obispo County in December 1982.

Around these parts you aren’t a veteran news photographer unless you have covered a flood.

I was rain baptised in 1982.

As a Cal Poly student, I spent a year stalking the photographers of the Telegram-Tribune, chatting with them when my Mustang Daily assignments overlapped, asking for critiques and studying their photographs, trying to deconstruct the secret sauce that made them successful.

I landed an internship at the paper beginning in the summer of 1982. Ken Chen, Tony Hertz and Wayne Nicholls all took time to help me bring my work up to the next level. The internship wound down in December with a big winter storm that knocked out power.

When rain began to fall in marble-sized drops I asked my other employer, Bill Hinote at Cal Photo, if I could take the rest of the day off and photograph the storm. He was happy to let me go, since last minute Christmas shoppers evaporated in the downpour.

Some things are best learned by experience, like how to write names for captions in a notebook that becomes rain-saturated as soon as it is opened. (Ball point pen — useless; felt tip — washes away; soft pencil — works.)

Ken was stationed at a rescue near Lopez Lake and his Nikon F3 became so rain-soaked that the electrical system failed. Fortunately, he had an F2 that was all mechanical and the F3 had one mechanical shutterspeed.

Ken and Tony had a good idea of places where flood photos could be found; I remember pulling damp rolls of film out of my camera.

The following is a composite of paragraphs from three stories reported by 10 staff members in the Dec. 23, 1982, Telegram-Tribune:

BLACKOUT: County checks damage, dries out

A surprising storm whalloped the Central Coast Wednesday afternoon, leaving the county awash and without power for hours.

The downpour swept up rocks and debris that clogged culverts, causing flooding in several homes and offices in San Luis Obispo. It blew camper shells off pickup trucks, spawned dirty waterfalls off mountainsides, cut into late-minute holiday shopping and made driving a hazardous adventure.

It also sent utility, municipal, county and Caltrans crews into overtime and forced firefighters and police into extra shifts.

In 24 hours, nearly 3 1/2 inches fell on Santa Margarita, while Atascadero receive(d) almost 2 1/2 inches. San Luis Obispo’s 2 inches pushed the season total past 14 inches, more than 9 inches beyond the normal rainfall for this date.

A rescue that began Wednesday morning in the rain-bloated waters near Lopez Creek ended today when a Santa Maria man was airlifted to French Hospital.

John Russel, 25, was found by Stoney Creek about six miles north of Lopez Lake just yards from where he was swept from his pickup in 7-foot-high waters Wednesday morning, according to sheriff’s Lt. Duane M. Dague.

That rescue was actually the third of a busy 24 hours for rescue members from the National Guard, the Air Force, the Coast Guard, Forest Service and sheriff’s deputies and volunteers of the Search and Rescue team.

Search and Rescue members were originally called into the remote area near Pozo to rescue a mother and her three children at about 9 a.m.

The unidentified woman’s truck stalled in 3 feet of water near the Conference Center as she headed into town to Christmas shop. That mountainous area is notorious for flash floods from runoff from the hills. It wasn’t long before the water soon reached the cab of the truck.

A California Department of Forestry fire truck was dispatched to the scene, Dague said.

Volunteer Brian Feuer backed the engine into the river as engineer Steve Vaughn lowered a ladder horizontally and set it on the stranded car about 20 feet from shore. Vaughn began crossing on the ladder but the current hit it, warped the ladder and washed it away. Vaughn made his way back to the truck.

Feuer then backed the engine in as far as he could go and put out an 8-foot attic ladder as water began washing through the windows of the truck.

Vaughn plucked the children out one by one and ferried them across the ladder.

“It really was good, quick thinking on his part,” said Ron Alsop, a volunteer firefighter. “They do deserve special recognition. They did a hell of a job.”

However, the fire truck was almost washed away. A county bulldozer showed up and fished it out. But that wasn’t the only rescue.

A short time later, Steven Boyd, 17, of Arroyo Grande stumbled across the rescue party. He had walked barefoot through the woods for six miles looking for help. Boyd and his two companions tried to cross a washed-out part of Lopez Road in Boyd’s four-wheel drive truck early Wednesday.

The power failure didn’t short circuit spirits of hundreds of curiosity seekers swarming the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo. Only a handful of shops and restaurants remained open, forcing many to expound at curbside their views on a city blanked in darkness.

At Korb’s Trading Post, Louis Raynor helped customers choose gifts by candlelight.

At the Hidden Hills Mobile Lodge on Tank Farm Road, Dolores Daniels “looked out the window, and one minute it was nothing; then next there was two feet of water. I was shocked.”

“There were tires floating by and all kinds of debris. It was like a river.”

She has lived in the park only seven months. “They didn’t tell me about this when I moved in.”

Water that gushed down a narrow canyon south of Los Osos Valley Road and about one-half mile west of Highway 1 flooded the Sunset Honda car lot. About 20 cars were towed to high ground after rising water threatened to sweep the autos away, said Sunset Honda bookkeeper Janet DeVelbiss.

“A typical big storm,” was Atascadero Fire Chief Mike Hicks’ description. “The usual downed trees and power lines but no great disasters.”