This December marks the 50th anniversary of the “Thousand Year Flood” in Northern California, which officially began on Dec. 21, 1964 — reaching its peak on Dec. 23 of that year and continued until early January 1965. Striking nine years almost to the day after a 1955 flood that was called “the disaster of the century,” the ’64 flood was caused by a deadly combination of weather events that dumped massive amounts of snow in the mountains, followed by warm rains that melted the snow and inundated local watersheds in a matter of hours.
“Prior to the main storm period, Dec. 19 through 25, minor rain events of November into early December had saturated the ground and increased the flow in the local rivers. In mid-December, a strong high pressure system was located between Hawaii and Alaska. … Around Dec. 19, the high pressure system weakened, allowing follow-on weather systems to move across the Pacific Ocean at successively lower latitudes before turning to the northeast and moving towards the west coast. A storm track 500 miles wide extending from near Hawaii to Oregon and northern California was established,” wrote Reginald Kennedy, service hydrologist at the Eureka station of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service.
“The combination of this very moist warm air, strong west-southwest winds, and orographic lift of the mountain ranges oriented at nearly right angles to the flow of the air resulted in heavy rain from Dec. 21 to 23. Today we use the term ‘Atmospheric River’ to describe this type of weather phenomenon. … A high pressure system built into the area northeast of Hawaii on Dec. 24 and cut off the flow of warm moist air to the west coast. The weather pattern then changed drastically as snow fell in the mountains with rain and hail at the lower elevations and along the coast.”
According to Kennedy’s research, during peak precipitation Whiskeytown Reservoir and Richardson Grove State Park reported more than 11 inches of rain in 24 hours. A total of 15 inches was reported at Ettersburg, 22 inches at Standish-Hickey State Park, and 17 inches at Gasquet.
The flood cut a huge swath of destruction across the North Coast, killing 29, causing millions in damage and cutting off entire communities from the outside world for months.
“I (saw) lots of acts of heroism during that time. Everybody was a hero back then,” said Jerry Hansen, 71, of Grizzly Bluff. His father, dairyman Arnold “Bud” Hansen of Ferndale, was a volunteer spotter on one of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopters commissioned to rescue people stranded in the Eel River bottoms area. The aircraft crashed on Dec. 22 in the stormy darkness after a day of flying people from their flooded homes to safer ground.
“My dad was a hero,” Hansen said in a recent phone interview, “but there were lots of heroes that also survived the ’64 flood. Everybody pitched in.”
Reports from the past
A 1965 report titled “Flood!” by Hugo Fisher and William Warne of the Department of Water Resources describes the event rather poetically: “With quickening pace the rivulets of water stream down the slopes of the mountains of the Coast Range and Sierra to swell into wild angry rivers. Combining forces, these raging torrents surge through the foothill areas and sweep relentlessly into the vulnerable valleys below.”
The California Department of Parks and Recreation described the flood as “the ‘greatest natural disaster’ ever experienced by the Pacific Northwest states. … The Eel, Smith, Klamath, Trinity, Salmon and Mad rivers were all long past flood stage that day and the next. Northern California’s Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, Siskiyou, Trinity and Sonoma counties experienced record water levels for the 20th century. … Floodwaters, laden with jammed logs and houses ripped from their foundations, roared across at least 16 highway bridges, destroying them all and leaving residents isolated for months.”
Kathy Hayes was 12 when the flood struck, stranding her family in a Ferndale Victorian, where they and the neighbors who had come to seek shelter had to continue moving upstairs to avoid the rising waters downstairs.
“It’s funny how people come together in times of need and do extraordinary things,” she wrote to the Times-Standard. “In our case, my family and our neighbors family worked together to round up all the cattle in the area to get them to high ground when the water was rising so that they would at least have a chance at survival. My father (John Miranda) and Mr. George Toste our neighbor took our plywood boat (at great personal risk) out of the shed and braved the rising flood waters to bring his family and his hired hand’s family to our location because they thought it would be safer. All of the food and supplies in our house became community property .. .and while she was still able (before the rising flood water prevented her from cooking) my mother cooked meals for everyone in the house. At that point, we were all just one big family trying to get through an enormously stressful situation.”
Hayes said that after her family was rescued and safely on dry ground, many Fortuna residents, some of whom they didn’t even know, donated clothing and Christmas gifts to her family and others.
“Most of all the selfless volunteerism of everyone from Law Enforcement, Civil Defense, Coast Guard Staff, Red Cross at times of extreme personal risk can’t be stressed enough,” she said. “Those of us that survived owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
Thirty-four counties in California were declared disaster areas, though Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, Siskiyou, Trinity and Sonoma counties suffered more damage than all the others put together. Flooding occurred from Yosemite Valley in the south to Nevada in the east and Washington in the north. Every river in Oregon hit flood stage as the deluge gained strength.
By Dec. 23, the water level had risen 46 feet higher than usual in Miranda, completely engulfing the village. The towns of Crescent City, Fernbridge, Holmes, Klamath, Myers Flat, Orleans, Paradise, Pepperwood, Redcrest, Scotia, Shively, South Fork, Stafford, Ti-Bar and Weott all suffered major damage, and several were never rebuilt.
Estimates of the financial losses on the North Coast topped $175 million.
As the waters slowly receded, they left “complete havoc” in their wake, according to Fisher and Warne.
“On many swollen streams in the North Coast, walls of water tore down highway and railroad bridges, overturned autos, smashed houses and farm buildings, and swept away entire villages. … Virtually the whole region from Scotia to Crescent City was isolated as the rampaging Eel, Mad and Klamath rivers and Redwood Creek made U.S. Route 101 impassable.”
They write that “(a)s the grim task of cleaning up the flood-stricken areas started, the death toll began to rise. Rescue workers used helicopters to probe the slowly receding rivers for victims and survivors. Hundreds of persons had been stranded for days without food or shelter in the flood-isolated valleys and foothills of the Eel River Canyon. Fog, rain, snow, and winds frustrated rescue efforts for areas which could be reached only by air and prolonged the misery of flood damage. As rescue operations swung into full scale, another storm whipped into Northern California with rains, snow, and hurricane gusts of wind. Rising rivers again forced an estimated 1,300 persons to flee for the second time. … Finally, on Jan. 6, residents of the northwest area were able to relax a moment to look back — and ahead — as the rivers began to fall and the weather forecast for only scattered showers diminished the threat of renewed floods.”
In the aftermath of the flood, the Humboldt Beacon reported a death toll of 29 people, with almost 1,700 injured. At least 4,784 homes, 374 businesses and 800 farm buildings were destroyed, according to compiled reports from the Statewide Flood Management Planning Program. About 80 percent of the county road systems sustained major damage, further complicating recovery efforts.
“Because of lack of transportation for logs and cut lumber, 4,000 workers are without jobs, and an additional 8,000 workers will be affected as more than half the lumber mills face closure. … Also hard hit was the dairy and livestock industry. Five thousand head of livestock were lost, thirty-five hundred of which were cows and calves. Pasture land was awash with mud and debris. Providing feed for the surviving cattle was a major problem, and sixty tons of hay and grain were flown to the area for the starving cattle,” the authors of “Flood!” wrote.
Catherine Mace, vice president of the Humboldt County Historical Society was a young mother living with her husband in Eugene, Ore., when the flood hit. Her grandparents were hosting a family reunion for Christmas 1964 but it wasn’t until around New Year’s that she was able to get south and see what happened in Humboldt County
“While the flood was huge here, it covered Oregon as well. You could not get north or south from Eugene on I-5,” she said. “When that started to recede and the airport became usable again, because it’d had water on it, then my grandfather took pity on us poor young ‘uns who were supposed to come down here. … We were having a family reunion. In time for New Years, it finally opened up where he (her grandfather) could drive up to Blue Lake, back on the North Bank Road and up to the airport to pick up us, so he got an airplane ticket and we flew into Eureka for the flood. It was amazing to see the logs on the beaches. There was water everywhere. When we flew into McKinleyville. It was absolutely wild looking … It was impressive when we got around here, the amount of logs, lumber and other stuff all over the beaches.
(Catherine said she heard more about the flood from her grandparents once she got to Humboldt County. She said:) They had checked with all of the relatives because my grandmother’s youngest brother was in Rio Dell and they were OK, but they were stuck. Another brother lived in Ferndale, he was the owner/editor of the Ferndale Enterprise, and he had taken a lot of pictures and written a lot of stuff (about the flood). Wendy, his niece, was going to school down in the Bay Area somewhere and she knew she couldn’t come home because the roads were closed. When it really hit, he sent a telegram to her saying, ‘Stay there, all is lost’ or something along those lines.
According to the Department of Parks and Recreation, “Tree-ring reconstruction in the Central Valley and sedimentary core sampling in the Santa Barbara Basin show cyclical evidence of severe droughts followed by ‘megafloods’ in California about every 200 years. The scientists studying these patterns link flooding to the 208-year Suess Cycle of solar activity; some think that we may expect another lengthy and costly flood in the first half of this century.” Even if future events don’t match the magnitude of the 1964 flood for another 1,000 years, lesser events still have the capacity for tremendous damage.
The Statewide Flood Management Planning Program estimates that “(t)oday, more than 7 million Californians, or one in five, live in the 500-year floodplain, and approximately $580 billion in assets (crops, structures, and public infrastructure) are exposed to flooding. This estimate does not include the impacts of future development, population changes, climate change, or costs due to loss of major infrastructure and critical facilities, as well as losses to State commerce.”
Fortunately, improvements in technology should give current residents more warning when flood conditions develop in the future. “Since the Flood of 1964, there have been improvements in technology, atmospheric and hydrologic models, and communication capabilities. Weather satellites, still experimental in 1964, have significantly improved weather forecasts. There have been significant improvements in imagery quality and sensor capabilities. Over the past 50 years the improvements made in the atmospheric and hydrological models has increased the skill of these models,” Kennedy wrote. “Though a flood similar to 1964 can occur again, the result of improved technology will provide more time for planning and taking necessary actions to mitigate the impacts from damaging floods.”
The full “Flood!” report from Fisher and Warne is available at http://tinyurl.com/18r.