With the strong possibility of a big storm over the weekend and with flood watches in place from near the Oregon border down to Bakersfield, our thoughts turn to … history. More specifically, to some of the great accounts we’ve seen of disasters and near-disasters resulting from big winter storms. Here are three selections, ranging from William Brewer’s account of the historic rains and floods of 1861-62 to two more recent stories, from John McPhee and Marc Reisner, that touch on the impact of big winter storms in the 1970s and 1980s.

William Brewer was field leader of the Whitney Survey, which traveled throughout California from 1860 through 1864 to document the state’s geological and other resources. Brewer’s letters and journal entries were collected and published in 1930 as “Up and Down California.” From San Francisco in January 1862, Brewer recorded the big news of the day: a nearly nonstop deluge that came amid what still stands as the rainiest winter in much of California. Six weeks later, he visited Sacramento, which had suffered devastating damage in the flood.

January 19, 1862
San Francisco

‘The rains continue, and since I last wrote the floods have been far worse than before. Sacramento and many other towns and cities have again been overflowed, and after the waters had abated somewhat they are again up. That doomed city is in all probability again under water today.

Sacramento during the winter of 1861-62, from contemporary newspaper illustrations.
Sacramento during the winter of 1861-62, from contemporary newspaper illustrations. (U)

The amount of rain that has fallen is unprecedented in the history of the state. In this city accurate observations have been kept since July, 1853. For the years since, ending with July 1 each year, the amount of rain is known. In New York state—central New York—the average amount is under thirty-eight inches, often not over thirty-three inches, sometimes as low as twenty-eight inches. This includes the melted snow. In this city it has been for the eight years closing last July, 21 3/4 inches, the lowest amount 19 3/4 inches, the highest 23 3/4. Yet this year, since November 6, when the first shower came, to January 18, it is thirty-two and three-quarters inches and it is still raining! But this is not all. Generally twice, sometimes three times, as much falls in the mining districts on the slopes of the Sierra. This year at Sonora, in Tuolumne County, between November 11, 1861, and January 14, 1862, seventy-two inches (six feet) of water has fallen, and in numbers of places over five feet! And that in a period of two months. As much rain as falls in Ithaca in two years has fallen in some places in this state in two months.1

The great central valley of the state is under water—the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys—a region 250 to 300 miles long and an average of at least twenty miles wide, a district of five thousand or six thousand square miles, or probably three to three and a half millions of acres! Although much of it is not cultivated, yet a part of it is the garden of the state. Thousands of farms are entirely under water—cattle starving and drowning. …

March 7, 1862

‘Early in the morning I went to a hotel in Sacramento and got my breakfast and brushed up for business. That dispatched, I had some time to look at the city. Such a desolate scene I hope never to see again. Most of the city is still under water, and has been for three months. A part is out of the water, that is, the streets are above water, but every low place is full—cellars and yards are full, houses and walls wet, everything uncomfortable. Over much of the city boats are still the only means of getting about. No description that I can write will give you any adequate conception of the discomfort and wretchedness this must give rise to. I took a boat and two boys, and we rowed about for an hour or two. Houses, stores, stables, everything, were surrounded by water. Yards were ponds enclosed by dilapidated, muddy, slimy fences; household furniture, chairs, tables, sofas, the fragments of houses, were floating in the muddy waters or lodged in nooks and corners—I saw three sofas floating in different yards. The basements of the better class of houses were half full of water, and through the windows one could see chairs, tables, bedsteads, etc., afloat. Through the windows of a schoolhouse I saw the benches and desks afloat.

It is with the poorer classes that this is the worst. Many of the one-story houses are entirely uninhabitable; others, where the floors are above the water are, at best, most wretched places in which to live. The new Capitol is far out in the water—the Governor’s house stands as in a lake—churches, public buildings, private buildings, everything, are wet or in the water. Not a road leading from the city is passable, business is at a dead standstill, everything looks forlorn and wretched. Many houses have partially toppled over; some have been carried from their foundations, several streets (now avenues of water) are blocked up with houses that have floated in them, dead animals lie about here and there—a dreadful picture. I don’t think the city will ever rise from the shock, I don’t see how it can. Yet it has a brighter side. No people can so stand calamity as this people. They are used to it. Everyone is familiar with the history of fortunes quickly made and as quickly lost. It seems here more than elsewhere the natural order of things. I might say, indeed, that the recklessness of the state blunts the keener feelings and takes the edge from this calamity.

Marc Reisner published “Cadillac Desert,” his critical history of water policy in California and the West, in the 1980s. A revised edition came out in 1993, and it included an afterword in which Reisner related the awesome power of a series of big, wet Pacific storms that hit California in February 1986.

‘I had always had a mordant wish to watch a dam collapse, and this seemed like the best opportunity I might get in my life. I arrived at Oroville Dam just as the storm was beginning to break up. (It took me hours longer than usual to get there, because shallow lakes had formed across Interstate 680, creating instant new refuges for mallards and pintails.) In the previous week and a half, the Feather River watershed had unofficially recorded fifty-five inches of precipitation, most of it as rain, which melted several feet of snow lying on the ground. Tampa gets that much rain in an average year. The spillway at Oroville is a big concrete channel that loops around the right abutment of the immense earthen dam. It was dumping a hundred and fifty thousands cubic feet of water per second, a couple of rivers the size of the Tennessee. That much water in that confined space — the spillway is about as wide as a basketball court — is in a hurry-up mood. My guess is that it was moving thirty or forty miles per hour. Small trees and shrubs lining the spillway fence were bent double under the force of the vortex winds created by so much mass in a rush. A crow, sailing arrogantly a few feet overhead, suddenly executed some frantic maneuvers to avoid being sucked in himself; he too had never seen anything like this before. Where the spillway poured the river back into the river below the dam — it didn’t so much pour in as fly in — a dense plume of mist mushroomed eighty stories high, split by three arching rainbows.

A dam did actually burst during the flood, though I didn’t see it happen. It was a temporary cofferdam built at the prospective site of Auburn Dam, whose construction had been mired in lawsuits and debate for years. The cofferdam held back about a hundred thousand acre-feet of water–thirty-two billion gallons–that merged, almost instantaneously, with a river already swollen to ten times its normal size. The flood-on-a-flood headed into Folsom Lake, which sits twenty miles above Sacramento and has a capacity of about a million acre-feet. Folsom Dam would have to spill the whole reservoir, 320 billion gallons of water, in three or four days in order to absorb the mythic flood pouring in. If it did not, the dam itself would be jeopardized, and if Folsom ended up like Teton Dam [a structure in Idaho that failed catastrophically in 1976] then a lot of Sacramento would float under the Golden Gate Bridge. When I arrived, a whole crowd of disaster buffs was already there, held at bay by dozens of highway patrol. I managed to sneak briefly onto the dam crest anyway; it trembled as a bank might tremble during a hurricane. The spillway at Folsom, a concrete and rock dam, was built into its center; it’s really a man-made, two-hundred-foot waterfall. At the time, it was dumping much more water than Niagara Falls. You couldn’t have heard a jet taking off five hundred feet away; that’s the kind of noise a million pounds of water makes–a million pounds a second–as it tumbles a couple of hundred feet and crashes into a canyon river bed. (If Folsom was going to be destroyed, it would probably be a consequence of the falling river chewing out the bedrock on which the dam was built.) The waterfall reversed direction about eighty years downriver and rose up in a towering, backfalling hydraulic wave that raced back and crashed into the dam’s downstream face, as if it wanted a second chance to knock it to smithereens. …

The Department of Water Resources later estimated that ten million acre-feet of runoff–enough for the city of San Francisco for forty years–had poured out the Golden Gate in two weeks. The crew of a freighter miles out to sea that was plowing through huge wave off the Gate said the wash coming across the bow tasted almost like Evian.

In the 1970s and ’80s, The New Yorker’s John McPhee wrote a long series of minutely researched and reported feature articles on humanity’s attempt to tame natural forces. The articles, collected and published in a single volume as “The Control of Nature,” included “Los Angeles Against the Mountains.” His two-part L.A. installment focused on attempts to mitigate the effects of alternating fires and floods along the front of the San Gabriel Mountains — an area prone to both kinds of disasters. He opens the article with a 1978 episode involving Bob and Jackie Genofile, who lived with their teenage children, Scott and Kimberlee, on the slopes of the San Gabriels.

‘The water was now spreading over the street. It descended in heavy sheets. As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows. The dark material coming toward the Genofiles was not only full of boulders; it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins. On its way down Pine Cone Road, it plucked up cars from driveways and the street. When it crashed into the Genofiles house, the shattering of safety glass made terrific explosive sounds. A door burst open. Mud and bould poured into the hall. We’re going to go, Jackie thought. Oh, my God, what a hell of a way for the four of us to die together.

The Genofile home in Glendale, California, after debris flow.
The Genofile home in Glendale, California, after debris flow. (Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley)

The parents’ bedroom was on the far side of the house. Bob Genofile was in there kicking through white satin draperies at the panelled glass, smashing it to provide an outlet for water, when the three others ran in to join him. The walls of the house neither moved nor shook. As a general contractor, Bob had build dams, department stores, hospitals, six schools, seven churches and this house. It was made of concrete block with steel reinforcement, sixteen inches on center. His wife had said it was stronger than any dam in California. His crew had called it “the fort.” In those days, twenty years before, the Genofiles’ acre was close by the edge of the mountain brush, but a developer had come along since then and knocked down thousands of trees and put Pine Cone Road up the slope. Now Bob Genofile was thinking, I hope the roof holds. I hope the roof is strong enough to hold. Debris was flowing over it. He told Scott to shut the bedroom door. No sooner was the door closed than it was battered down and fell into the room. Mud, rock, water poured in. It pushed everybody against the far wall. “Jump on the bed,” Bob said. The bed began to rise. Kneeling on it–on a gold velvet spread–they could soon press their palms against the ceiling. The bed also moved toward the glass wall. The two teen-agers got off, to try to control the motion, and they were pinned between the bed’s brass railing and the wall. Boulders went up against the railing, pressed it into their legs, and held them fast. Bob dived into the muck to try to move the boulders, but he failed. The debris flow, entering through windows as well as doors, continued to rise. Escape was still possible for the parents but not for the children. The parents looked at each other and did not stir. Each reached for and held one of the children. Their mother felt suddenly resigned, sure that her son and daughter would die and she and her husband would quickly follow. The house became buried to the eaves. Boulders sat on the roof. Thirteen automobiles were packed around the building, including five in the pool. A din of rocks kept banging against them. The stuck horn of a buried car was blaring. The family in the darkness in their fixed tableau watched one another by the light of a directional signal, endlessly blinking. The house had filled up in six minutes, and the mud stopped rising near the children’s chins.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

Twitter: twitter.com/danbrekke
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