Photos from the Vault

In 1973, ‘raging’ SLO flood sent mobile homes drifting down a creek

Motorboats aided in evacuation near Laguna Lake along Oceanaire Drive during the January 1973 flood.
Motorboats aided in evacuation near Laguna Lake along Oceanaire Drive during the January 1973 flood. Telegram-Tribune

The day President Richard Nixon was being sworn in for a second term, San Luis Obispo was coping with a more localized disaster.

In 1969, record flooding hammered the county over a one-week span. Four years later, in January 1973, torrential rains brought a second 100-year flood to San Luis Obispo.

According to Telegram-Tribune stories and a booklet titled “The Day the Rains Came … January 18, 1973,” the flood resulted from nature’s distribution of rainfall and man’s ability to ignore the warning signs.

An evening drizzle developed into steady all-night rain and finished with a fierce deluge.

Here’s one indication of the sudden fury. On Jan 17, the newspaper carried the headline “Storm slaps at county but no major flooding.” The next afternoon, the headline read “Floods raging across the county.”

More than 4 inches of rain fell in San Luis Obispo, enough to raise area creeks to critical levels.

Marsh and Higuera is covered with mud and mobile homes as buckets of mud are dumped into San Luis Creek after the January 1973 flood. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

Cal Poly measured 6.4 inches of rain, resulting in Stenner Creek overflowing.

In Prefumo Canyon, rainfall was measured at 9 inches, sending a torrent of water into Laguna Lake. That means Prefumo Canyon got almost half the city’s average annual rainfall, delivered in one unruly package.

Bright sunshine followed the storm, revealing an estimated $6.25 million in damages. That’s nearly $37 million in 2018 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.

The trouble was worst near where tributary creeks met San Luis Obispo Creek.

Anywhere the flow was obstructed, the waters overflowed and took to the surface streets.

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Madonna Road crossing of 101 is an island in the flood zone. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Luis Creek flood map after 1973 flood of San Luis Obispo. Army Corps of Engineers Preliminary Flood Plain Information

A building support pillar in San Luis Obispo Creek, where the creek enters the downtown tunnel, slowed the flow and diverted water into downtown streets.

The pillar had been identified as a problem during the 1969 floods, but legal wrangling had stalled removal. It was slated to be removed that summer.

Debris, including a car, got caught on the Marsh Street freeway off-ramp over San Luis Obispo Creek.

Water was backed up into a mobile home sales lot, floating the inventory away. The tiny homes became tiny dams.

An estimated 100 cars were damaged.

Car lands in an awkward position on Marsh near Higuera Streets. January 1973 flooding damaged up to 100 cars in San Luis Obispo. Richard Cushing Telegram-Tribune

The Tower building at the corner of Chorro and Higuera streets suffered $40,000 in fire damage.

The flood broke a gas pipe running in the San Luis Obispo Creek tunnel. Gas ignited in a stairway between Corcoran’s restaurant and a barbershop, and dozens of volunteers pitched in to fight the fire.

“At one time we had 40 men on it who were picked right off the street,” fire Capt. Elton Hall said.

San Luis Obispo Police Chief Ervin Rodgers was helping direct work on lower Higuera Street when his car was swept downstream by the rising waters. He was uninjured but the car was heavily damaged.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood around C.L. Smith Elementary School was inundated by water from Laguna Lake. Boats were photographed on the lawn in front of the school after the water went down.

Boats parked on the C.L. Smith school lawn the day after the flood. Jan. 18, 1973. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

Flood control channels in the Foothill Boulevard-North Tassajara Drive area carried flood water away faster, only to flood homes faster downstream.

The area where Chorro, Lincoln and Broad streets meet was hit hard, as was the Dana Street area.

An unofficial estimate said 800 to 1,000 homes suffered damage.

As residents worked to clean up the mess, Nixon eventually declared San Luis Obispo County a disaster area, freeing up federal relief money.

After two 100-year floods within four years, residents wondered when the next flood would arrive.

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