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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Rivers in the Skies

Is the “atmospheric river” that deluged California last week a precursor of what is to come? Back in the day, they called such phenomena Monster Storms, and they turned the state into one continuous lake when a series of storms dumped unprecedented amounts of rain across the length and breadth of California from December 1861 through January 1862.

In Trinity and Shasta Counties, whole bridges were washed away; cabins, chicken coops, hay bales and furniture swept down the Trinity River to the sea. The North Fork of the American River rose 35 feet at Auburn, “almost to the hilltops” according to local newspapers. The captain of the steamer Gem, ascending the Sacramento River from Sacramento to Red Bluff, could only tell where the river channel was by the cottonwood trees lining the riverbanks, and had to stop several times to rescue men from of the tops of trees.

The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys became vast lakes extending 300 miles, four and more feet deep. Collapsed wooden houses and the drowned carcasses of livestock floated past diligent souls who bravely took row boats out to rescue people stranded on patches of higher ground, or perched on rooftops. Powerful currents toppled telegraph poles and ripped railroad tracks apart.

The town of Ventura, located on the narrow coastal plain, was abandoned when rivers coursing down the mountains flooded the region. A total of 35 inches of rain fell at Los Angeles in a four week period, destroying fruit trees and vineyards along the Los Angeles River. In most of the lower areas of the coastal plains, small settlements were submerged.

In Orange County, the overflowing Santa Ana River created an inland sea that lasted for about three weeks; and in San Diego, a storm at sea backed up the water draining from the San Diego River into the ocean, cutting a new river channel into San Diego Harbor.

Meteorologists calculate that the 1861-62 “storm of the century” is a natural event that occurs every 200 years or so...which means we’re very close to being due for another one.

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