Gusty Santa Lucia (northeasterly) winds helped to set another San Luis Obispo temperature record on Friday when the airport reached 105 degrees.
This past summer and early fall have been the warmest ever recorded in San Luis Obispo and have led many Central Coast residents to ask, “When will the promised rains of El Niño arrive?”
At this time, the current El Niño is similar in strength to the 1997-98 event. The 1998 rain season (July 1, 1997, through June 30, 1998) produced 44 inches at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant’s rain gauge — nearly twice the normal amount.
Reviewing my weather forecast from October 1997, it was also hot and dry with abnormally warm seawater temperatures along our coastline. I remember two things about that fall: First was the arrival of pelagic red crabs — also called tuna crabs. These 5-inch-long, bright red animals resemble a hybrid between a lobster and a crab and occasionally wash up along our beaches during strong El Niño events.
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The second thing I remember was KSBY-TV meteorologist Sharon Graves sponsoring an El Niño storm preparedness workshop at the station to discuss preparations for possible flooding that winter with firefighters, police and emergency planners.
That year, the rain didn’t start until Nov. 10, when a cold front with gusty southerly winds produced 0.7 inches of rain at Diablo Canyon. Overall, irregular weather systems produced about 6 inches of rain in November, 5 inches for December and 6 inches in January.
No doubt, these were decent amounts of precipitation, but nothing that could be classified as particularly severe. By the end of January, many wondered if all the media attention leading up to that year’s El Niño was justified.
Then February 1998 arrived and the storm door swung wide open. The mid-latitude westerly winds at the surface and in the upper levels of the atmosphere dramatically increased and brought a series of storms that marched across the Pacific through the Central Coast.
On Feb. 3, an intense cold front generated the strongest winds ever recorded at Diablo Canyon. Sustained southerly winds reached 63 mph that night with gusts of 79 mph. The marine offshore buoys, with their anemometers just 16 feet above the ocean’s surface, recorded sustained winds over 50 mph with gusts to 70 mph. Pacific swells reached 20 feet in height at the Diablo Canyon WaveRider buoy.
Rain gauges throughout the Central Coast recorded rainfall nearly every single day through Feb. 24. Overall, 15 inches of rain was recorded that month at Cal Poly.
At the end of that deluge, tragedy struck. In the early morning hours of Feb. 24, the Cuyama River was roaring at 20,000 cubic feet per second, the highest flow ever recorded. The rock- and debris-infused water undercut and washed out a large section of State Route 166 northeast of Santa Maria.
California Highway Patrol officers Rick Stovall and Britt Irvine died when their patrol car plunged into the abyss carved out by the swollen river while responding to a report of a washout on the highway. Michael Tye also lost his life when his Chevrolet pickup went into the river.
A story written by Danna Dykstra of the Telegram-Tribune quoted Sisquoc Community Church Pastor Bill Klein, who was driving his Dodge Durango west with his daughter on Highway 166 when he noticed headlights from an eastbound vehicle coming toward him.
“We were about ready to pass each other when that car went straight down,” Klein said.
“That caused me to slam on my brakes. If that Highway Patrol car had been a little sooner or a little later, my daughter and I would have gone over. The officers literally gave their lives for us. Had they not gone in ahead of us, we would not have survived; the others who came after them would not have survived.”
At PG&E, your safety is our first concern. Stormy conditions with heavy rains, winds and floods might seem unlikely after four years of drought, however, this winter may be different. To get ready for this storm season, please visit www.pge.com for storm, outages and safety tips.