In January, High Country News hosted two students from Reed College to see the inner workings of a news magazine. Below is one of the stories they wrote about climate and water in California that will be running at hcn.org. Read the other story here.
In January, heavy rains in California and Nevada flooded rivers and forced hundreds to evacuate their homes. Storms toppled the historic Pioneer Tree in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, closed Highway 1 and triggered mudslides. In February, the reservoir levels at Oroville Dam forced officials to use the damaged emergency spillway, prompting fears of flooding and forcing evacuations. Relentless as they may be, the current storms are, in a sense, standard fare for the state. Statewide slow-rise floods occurred in 1805, 1825, 1849, 1955, 1958, and 1983, to say nothing of flash floods or coastal flooding in other years. And way back in 1862, three massive storms hit California, devastating towns and flooding rivers throughout the state.
“The great Noah shower hardly exceeded what we have had for more than forty days and nights past,” the New York Times’ San Francisco correspondent reported on Feb. 18, 1862. Almost no part of the state was spared. Los Angeles received four times its usual amount of rain, and Sacramento was so inundated that the state legislature temporarily convened in San Francisco. The rains also drenched Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Mexico and Canada.
A mere 38,000 people lived in California then. The state had no official weather service. It didn’t have federal or state supports in place to mitigate or respond to the flood, either. According to the Times correspondent, San Francisco cobbled together a relief organization, but for the most part, Californians relied on luck and charity. “Public and private houses here have been thrown open to the sufferers, and contributions continue to flow in from old and young, and committees go about from house to house seeking contributions of money, clothing and provisions,” the Times reported. A San Francisco music hall opened its doors to refugees from Sacramento. Steamboats traveled between Sacramento and the coast, looking for survivors stranded on top of houses, waiting to be rescued. But the boats couldn’t save everyone, and several hundred people died that winter.
This month’s storms don’t compare to “the Great Flood” of 1862—at least, not yet. That flood lasted for 43 days and put parts of the state underwater for months. According to paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram, it was a “megaflood,” one of a series of enormous storms that have hit California roughly every 200 years. Meanwhile, climate change is already bringing on more severe cycles of drought and flooding, possibly setting the stage for “megafloods” to come.
For some Californians, the winter rains aren’t all bad news. They may alleviate the state’s nearly six-year-long drought. And though the Times correspondent wasn’t concerned with drought in 1862, he did write about one redeeming factor that’s unlikely to cheer many modern Californians. “The only consolation in all this ruin and suffering,” he wrote, “is the fact that the mountain torrents will wash out and expose to view immense quantities of gold.”
Isabel Lyndon is a senior history major at Reed College. Follow her @LyndonIsabel.