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California's Top 15 Weather Events of the 1900s

Editor's Note: Staff at the National Weather Service offices in California have reviewed records of major weather events to affect the state over the past 100 years. Based on impacts to people, property, and the economy, National Weather Service has chosen the top 15 weather-related events to impact California, listed in ascending order. Choosing among the numerous weather events was a difficult task. Many of the events did not affect California alone but were widespread, impacting other parts of the western United States. You will note that most of the larger events are recent. This is due to the fact that record keeping has improved in the latter half of the century, while urbanization in the state has increased the economic impacts of severe storms and floods.

This information is taken from the National Weather Service pages in September, 2008.

September 1939 Tropical Storm

Overview: Losing hurricane status shortly before moving onshore south of Los Angeles (San Pedro) at tropical storm strength, the system packing torrential rains and sustained winds of 50 mph drenched Los Angeles with 5.62 inches of rain in a 24 hour period.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Alerted Californians to their vulnerability to tropical storms.
Calculated Damages: 45 deaths on land with many more at sea.

November 1961 Bel Air Fire

Overiew: Began as a typical late season local fire until dry vegetation and strong winds led to rapid expansion. The fire became significant due to extremely poor vehicle access. Streets were narrow and winding and many homes had only one access road. Incoming fire equipment and exiting residents jammed the access roads, forcing firefighters to walk in with hand tools to combat the fire. Many residents lost all possessions that could not be carried away on foot.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Led to major revisions of residential infrastructure planning, implementing new requirements for wider streets and multiple access roads.
Calculated Damages: 103 injured firemen, $100 million economic losses including 484 buildings (mostly residential) and 6,090 acres destroyed.

1995 Winter Storms

Overview: Significant and extended heavy rain and wind. Flooding in coastal regions was particularly notable. The Salinas River exceeded its previous measured record crest by more than four feet ... which was within a foot or two of the reputed crest of the legendary 1862 flood. The Monterey Peninsula was effectively cut off from the "mainland". The Napa River set a new peak record and the Russian and Pajaro Rivers approached their record peaks. Extensive flooding from small streams particularly in Placer County suburbs.
Calculated Damages: 28 dead, $1.841 billion economic losses.

December 1955 Flooding

Overview: Extensive flooding a few days before Christmas throughout central and northern California. Close to record floods on most of the major Central Valley rivers and the greatest flow of record to that time on the Eel River on the North Coast. Statewide disaster declared.
Calculated Damages: 74 deaths, $200 million economic losses.

December 1990 Freeze

Overview: Record-setting low temperatures for an extended period of time during a critical growing period. Temperatures did not get above 25 degrees in parts of the San Joaquin Valley for three to five days and all time record low temperatures were set at Sacramento, Stockton, and Bakersfield. Many records were set for duration of freezing temperatures. The agricultural industry was devastated as acres of trees - not just fruit - were destroyed. Thirty-three counties were disaster-declared.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Changed the way crop protection measures were implemented.
Calculated damages: $3.4 billion in direct and indirect economic losses including damage to public buildings, utilities, crop damage, and residential burst pipes.

1969 Winter Storms and Floods

Overview: Significant flooding on Central Valley rivers and reformation of Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley as extended precipitation fell across the state. Heavy snow fell in all mountain ranges and the monthly rainfall record was set in Sacramento. Forty counties were disaster-declared.
Calculated Damages: 47 dead, 161 injured, $300 million economic losses.

December 1977 Southern San Joaquin Valley Wind/Dust Storm

Overview: Wind reached an estimated 192 mph in Arvin and lifted in excess of 25 million tons of soil from local grazing lands alone. The wind was strong enough to cause drifting sand to pile-up and plug highways, bury cars, blow-out windows in vehicles, and denude the landscape. The raised dust from the event dimmed the sun as far north as Reno, NV.
Long-term Strategic Impact: The local landscape was permanently changed from fertile farmland to sandy soil and resulted in an overwhelming agricultural economic loss for many years. In addition, state highway and emergency planners became more sensitive to reduced visibility problems on Central Valley highways caused by blowing dust and dense fog.
Calculated Damages: 3 dead, $40 million immediate economic losses ... not including subsequent agricultural losses.

March 1907 and January 1909 Floods

Overview: Significant flooding on all major rivers in the Sacramento Valley. A record instantaneous flow peak was set one year, the record overall flow volume was set during the other. A total of 300,000 acres were flooded in the Sacramento Valley in 1907.
Long-term Strategic Impact: The flood episodes resulted in an overhaul of planned statewide flood control designs. Previous designs were based upon Midwest experience, which relied upon confining rising rivers between levees. The concept of bypasses and overflow weirs had been suggested and rejected. Following the 1907 and 1909 record floods, a new Lead Planning Engineer was selected and the current California flood control design was devised.
Calculated Damages: Not available.

October 1993 Firestorms

Overview: Multiple fires ravaged southern California for an extended period of time...fueled by very dry vegetation and extreme Santa Ana winds. The initial fires were ignited by campfires. However, as both the winds and fires continued unabated, additional fires were ignited by arsonists and downed power lines. Of the twenty identified fires, the initial two were caused by campfires, six by downed power lines, and twelve by arsonists.
Calculated Damages: 4 dead, 162 injured, $1 billion economic losses in property alone and 194,000 acres were destroyed.

March 1964 Tsunami-induced Flooding

Overview: A tsunami caused by the Alaskan earthquake completely wiped out several North Coast towns. The Del Norte County coastal area was devastated and substantial damage was received along the entire California coastline.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Heightened sensitivity to tsunami-induced flooding and led to improved warning and awareness efforts.
Calculated Damages: 14 dead, $16 million economic losses in Del Norte County alone.

1997 New Year's Flood

Overview: Significant rainfall fell throughout central and northern California from December 26, 1996 through January 3, 1997, with the heaviest and warmest rains on New Year's Eve/Day. Snow levels were above 10,000 feet. Several towns were inundated. Three-hundred square miles were flooded, including the Yosemite Valley, which flooded for the first time since 1861-62. For weeks after the rains stopped rivers continued to flow out of their banks and major roads remained impassable due to flood damage and mudslides. Along I-80 ... rainfall recorded for the event totaled 3.71 inches at Sacramento ... 9.57 inches at Auburn ... and 29.73 inches at Blue Canyon. Forty-eight counties were disaster-declared, including all 46 counties in northern California.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Led to improved methods for large-scale evacuations.
Calculated damages: 8 dead, $1.8 billion economic losses including 23,000 homes and 2,000 businesses damaged or destroyed.

January 1913 Freeze

Overview: Widespread low temperatures for an extended period of time caused extreme damage to the fledgling California citrus industry. Temperatures dropped to 10-15 F in some areas, representing some of the coldest nights ever measured in the state.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Led directly to the U.S. Weather Bureau establishment of the fruit frost forecast program.
Calculated Damages: Not available.

October 1991 Oakland Tunnel (East Bay Hills) Fire

Overview: The firestorm erupted in a densely populated, exclusive neighborhood with poor vehicle access, causing an extreme amount of damage in less than a 24-hour period. The fire took hold due to very dry vegetation and was quickly whipped out of control by strong local winds.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Resulted in a complete overhaul of the State of California Office of Emergency Services emergency management incident command system.
Calculated Damages: 25 dead, 150 injuries, $1.7 billion economic losses including 3,354 homes and 456 apartments destroyed.

1975-77 Drought

Overview: Severe low rainfall and snowfall over an extended period of time in California. Thirty-one counties were disaster-declared.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Water rights issues moved to the top of political agendas. Ushered in the era of low-flow water fixtures and natural landscaping in California.
Calculated Damages: $2.664 billion economic losses.

1982-83 El Niño Storms

Overview: Multiple strong storms brought high wind, heavy rain, and heavy snowfall across all of California. This led to direct wind damage, higher tides, immediate flooding to coastal and valley locations, mudslides in coastal mountain areas, record snowfall in the Sierra Mountains, and resulting spring snowmelt river flooding. In one 36-hour period, 25 inches of rain fell in the Santa Cruz (coastal) mountains while 8.5 feet of snow fell in the Lake Tahoe region. Forty-six counties were disaster-declared.
Long-term Strategic Impact: Lessons learned from this El Niño event were used to lessen the impact of the next El Niño event in 1997-98, including enhanced coordination of reservoir releases.
Calculated Damages: 36 dead, 481 injured, $1.209 billion economic losses including 6,661 homes and 1,330 businesses damaged or destroyed.

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