While we’re waiting to see if this year’s El Nino will be a drought buster, a dud or a disaster, we may want to contemplate a series of storms that once dumped 66 inches of rain on Los Angeles in one season and turned vast portions of California into an inland sea.
According to experts, it could happen again.
Retelling the tale serves to underscore the point that California is no stranger to weather extremes. Droughts are followed by torrential rains. Torrential rains are followed by droughts. We should be prepared for either. But too often we’re not.
The story of this megastorm is told by B. Lynn Ingram, a professor in the Earth and Planetary Science Department at UC Berkeley. It appeared in Scientific American.
In 1861, farmers and ranchers were praying for rain after two exceptionally dry decades. In December their prayers were answered with a vengeance, as a series of monstrous Pacific storms slammed—one after another—into the West coast of North America, from Mexico to Canada. The storms produced the most violent flooding residents had ever seen, before or since.
Sixty-six inches of rain fell in Los Angeles that year, more than four times the normal annual amount, causing rivers to surge over their banks, spreading muddy water for miles across the arid landscape.
Large brown lakes formed on the normally dry plains between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, even covering vast areas of the Mojave Desert. In and around Anaheim, flooding of the Santa Ana River created an inland sea four feet deep, stretching up to four miles from the river and lasting four weeks.
Residents in northern California, where most of the state’s 500,000 people lived, were contending with devastation and suffering of their own. In early December, the Sierra Nevada experienced a series of cold arctic storms that dumped 10 to 15 feet of snow, and these were soon followed by warm atmospheric rivers storms.
The series of warm storms swelled the rivers in the Sierra Nevada range so that they became raging torrents, sweeping away entire communities and mining settlements in the foothills—California’s famous “Gold Country.”
A January 15, 1862, report from the Nelson Point Correspondence described the scene: “On Friday last, we were visited by the most destructive and devastating flood that has ever been the lot of ‘white’ men to see in this part of the country. Feather River reached the height of 9 feet more than was ever known by the ‘oldest inhabitant,’ carrying away bridges, camps, stores, saloon, restaurant, and much real-estate.”
Drowning deaths occurred every day on the Feather, Yuba and American rivers. In one tragic account, an entire settlement of Chinese miners was drowned by floods on the Yuba River.
This enormous pulse of water from the rain flowed down the slopes and across the landscape, overwhelming streams and rivers, creating a huge inland sea in California’s enormous Central Valley—a region at least 300 miles long and 20 miles wide.
Water covered farmlands and towns, drowning people, horses and cattle, and washing away houses, buildings, barns, fences and bridges. The water reached depths up to 30 feet, completely submerging telegraph poles that had just been installed between San Francisco and New York, causing transportation and communications to completely break down over much of the state for a month.
One-quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned in the flood, marking the beginning of the end of the cattle-based ranchero society in California. One-third of the state’s property was destroyed, and one home in eight was destroyed completely or carried away by the floodwaters.
Sacramento, 100 miles up the Sacramento River from San Francisco, was (and still is) precariously located at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.
In 1861, the city was in many ways a hub: the young state’s sparkling new capital, an important commercial and agricultural center, and the terminus for stagecoaches, wagon trains, the pony express and riverboats from San Francisco.
The levees built to protect Sacramento from catastrophic floods crumbled under the force of the rising waters of the American River. In early January the floodwaters submerged the entire city under 10 feet of brown, debris-laden water.
California’s new Governor, Leland Stanford, was to be inaugurated on January 10, but the floodwaters swept through Sacramento that day, submerging the city. Citizens fled, yet the inauguration ceremony took place at the capitol building anyway, despite the mounting catastrophe.
Stanford was forced to travel from his mansion to the capital building by rowboat. Following the expedited ceremony, with floodwaters rising at a rate of one foot per hour, Stanford rowed back to his mansion, where he was forced to steer his boat to a second story window in order to enter his home. Conditions did not improve in the following weeks.
California’s legislature, unable to function in the submerged city, finally gave up and moved to San Francisco on January 22, to wait out the floods. Sacramento remained underwater for months.
Dependent on property taxes, the State of California went bankrupt. The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half.
Ingram warns that the lessons of the 1861-62 floods should provide the impetus for flood disaster planning efforts in a region where housing developments and cities are spreading across many floodplains. A critical element of living in a place like California is an awareness of these natural disasters, which requires a deep understanding of the natural patterns and frequencies of these events.
Today we have building codes for earthquake safety, she writes, but millions of new westerners are not aware of the region’s calamitous climate history. Most have never even heard of the 1861–62 floods, and those may not have been the worst that nature can regularly dish out to the region.
Ingram and her colleagues believe similar if not larger floods have occurred every one to two centuries over the past two millennia in California.
If they are right, we had better prepare for another Big One.
Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.