Friday, December 30, 2005

Winter Rain

Mudslides crushed cars, rivers and creeks roared into city streets, the skies dumped buckets of rain, and delta levees burst and flooded agricultural islands. Sound like this past week?

A bit, perhaps.

But it's been worse in previous years. In many years, as a matter of fact.

New Year's Day floods are fairly common to Northern California, with epic drenchings occurring at the stroke of January in 1997, 1995, 1986 and 1982, and lesser ones putting homes underwater many years in between. And the storms that flooded streets in Napa and Marin counties and turned some river areas in Sonoma County into soggy messes have been damaging, but nothing like those of other years that did far more damage overall.

"Not to say people aren't suffering now, but the fact is we've had much worse before," said Pete Weisser, spokesman at the state Flood Control Center in Sacramento. "Maybe we've learned from all those past disasters. The folks in the emergency service offices are pretty sophisticated now and have been doing their jobs well this time."

Hardest hit this weekend was the city of Napa, where streets became ponds after the Napa River leaped its banks. But the town is used to that. Flooding was particularly bad in 2002, and during the great floods of the mid-1990s the state Department of Water Resources recorded the river swelling about a foot higher than this weekend's 29.8-foot mark.

"Fortunately, these (latest) storms weren't dam-busters on the rivers, and they came and went pretty fast," said Weisser. "The rivers are getting a better chance to drain than they sometimes get."

Most telling for him, he said, is that the Sacramento River -- the biggest in the state -- has stayed 3 feet below record levels so far, causing minimal trouble. And the fact that the storms sweeping into the state have given the area intermittent breaks, and aren't hanging around for two weeks as in other big years, is a life-saver.

"Look, Northern California has some kind of flood every two or three years, no matter what," said Maury Roos, the state's chief hydrologist at the Department of Water Resources. "That kind of makes this one of the more flood-prone regions on Earth. So really, what we're seeing right now is just winter.

"If it's anything like other wet years, we'll probably come out of this and go into a good long dry period."

Those buffeted by winds gusting to 80 mph this time might be comforted knowing the winds blew to 100 mph in the annual winter storms as recently as 2004 -- an off-year for flooding and weather damage. And 500,000 people may have lost their power over the past week as rain and winds knocked down power lines, but that's actually normal for a big winter storm. One million customers went dark in 2002 -- again, an off-year for flooding -- and 2 million lost their power in 1995's New Year drenching.

Several thousand people in six different counties have been evacuated from their homes this time, but during the "Pineapple Express" floods of 1997, more than 100,000 people in 33 counties had to flee floodwaters, from Sacramento to Guerneville. Both the state and federal governments declared disaster areas in Northern California in 1995, 1997 and during the El NiƱo swamping of 1998, but that has yet to happen this year.

One man died this past week when a tree fell on him, and a California Highway Patrol officer perished when he was hit at an accident scene in the Santa Cruz Mountains -- terrible losses, but unfortunately, the statistics climb even higher when the floods get bigger. In 1997, eight people lost their lives; the number was 10 in 1995 and 13 in 1986. Several more died in other storms during the past 20 years.

The Russian River area is usually slammed the hardest by floodwaters when the rain starts falling heavily in Northern California. And it's been no picnic there this time.

"If you live here, you expect this," Guerneville resident Pete Margolies said as floodwaters lapped a few inches below his front doorstep. "In Guerneville, you either learn to shrug your shoulders at a little water in the house, or you move somewhere else."

Many Russian River residents, to some extent or another, get flooding in their houses several times every year, and it takes a major event to get them to leave. This year, the river's high mark hit 41.8 feet, but that was still 3 feet short of the 1997 level, 6 feet short of 1995 and 7 feet short of 1986 -- and the locals took notice, and sighed with relief. Every foot spells the difference between salvation and ruin for first-floor furniture or business displays.

In fact, given relentless regularity with which the Russian River plays havoc with homes, the joking and jibing is common about why anyone would want to live near the water there.

"I hear that stuff all the time, but really, there are a lot worse things that can happen to you," said Margolies. "I lived in Wisconsin for 10 years, and man, this stuff comes down as snow there, and it's miserable.

"Here? This kind of flooding happens around here about twice every 10 years, and the rest of the time we get to live right next to the river, and everyone else has to drive hours to get here."

Margolies said he had amused himself over the past couple days by watching television news crews dashing around town, looking hungry for disaster they couldn't seem to find.

"Every time a storm drain backed up, they'd all rush over there and film it like crazy," he said, chuckling. "I don't know why our puddles are so interesting. I wish they'd send people out here who've actually had some perspective."


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