Sunday, March 27, 2011


Don Miller: Santa Cruz County disasters -- The river rises again - It's not a dream. It never is. Thursday was that kind of day. It had been raining off and on for seemingly weeks, but the way it was falling, falling that morning reminded me of so many other moments in time. And it probably brought unwelcome memories to lots of other folks who have been around Santa Cruz County for more than a decade or so. Because one of our barely repressed secrets is that in an area blessed with so much beauty -- we're a mecca for natural disasters. That's a little difficult to fathom a little more than two weeks after the apocalypse in Japan, but here at the Sentinel the river of experience and memory runs deep. Our most recent rain and wind storms culminated in flooding that ruined manufactured homes in a Capitola park, sent water and mud into businesses in Capitola Village, toppled trees into homes, caused epic landslides and mud ooze, and forced homeowners to evacuate along the surging and cresting San Lorenzo River on the stretch between Felton and Santa Cruz. Less than two weeks before, a tsunami surged through the Santa Cruz boat harbor, causing more than $26 million in damages and destroying or sinking 10 boats. And even recent emigres to Santa Cruz County can talk with some authority about the '89 earthquake, which killed six people and pretty much destroyed downtown Santa Cruz and Watsonville along with 700 homes countywide. Damages. In recent years, we've also endured a series of wildfires that have destroyed property and set off millions of dollars in damages and firefighting costs. But the most frequent unwelcome visitor -- please allow me to introduce myself -- is water. Our coastal-mountain geography lends itself to torrential downpours -- and low lying areas can be helpless in the face of raging rivers and streams, often choked with logs that once were mighty redwoods and douglas firs in Santa Cruz Mountain forests. In December 1955, after days of heavy rainfall, the San Lorenzo River jumped its banks and took a trip through downtown Santa Cruz. Nearly every business in the area suffered extensive damages and losses. Neighborhoods were at the mercy of the floodwaters and houses were ripped from foundations. Homes along the river in the San Lorenzo Valley were ruined and cabins swept into the torrent. A logjam in Soquel Creek led to Soquel Village being flooded. More than 2,000 residents were evacuated -- and this was a time when the entire population of the county was only 66,500 about 22,000 in the city of Santa Cruz, less than a quarter of today's population. Eight people died and damages were estimated in 1955 dollars at $7.5 million. The Great Flood of '55 led to government funding for a flood control project to tame the routes the San Lorenzo River and Branciforte Creek took through the city -- and for rebuilding downtown Santa Cruz. But that storm was surpassed by the disaster of Jan. 4, 1982, that left 22 people dead and more than $100 million in damages as incessant storms led to devastating flooding and mudslides. The Love Creek slide in Ben Lomond killed 10 people when an entire saturated hillside collapsed. Aptos Creek went on its own death and destruction rampage and Soquel Creek, shades of 1955, was again backed up by a logjam and flooded its namesake village. Although the river levees held in downtown Santa Cruz, the surging San Lorenzo River threw a section of the Soquel Avenue bridge into the water. On March 11, 1995, the Pajaro River's levees failed, flooding Watsonville neighborhoods, the town of Pajaro and miles of rich Pajaro Valley agricultural lands. Sixteen years later, a much discussed and disputed flood control project for the river remains just talk. Our merry band of photographers, reporters and editors have become battle-scarred veterans covering disasters. Today, the effort includes keeping up-to-date emergency information posted on our website, which sees incredible traffic during these events. We solicit and post readers' photos and videos -- and host discussion forums where people in the midst of what is happening share their experience, strength and hope -- and tell other readers what to avoid and how. Meanwhile, our news team constantly updates what we know, when we know it. The next morning, you, the print reader, get to relive the event. And while all of us are feeling weary these days because life just keeps surging over our boundaries and riverbanks, we also know that in Santa Cruz County, the next big thing is inevitably just moving downstream. Don Miller is the editor of the Sentinel. Email him at You can read his blog at The Sentinel is using Facebook for your feedback and commenting on this page. See our commenting policy. ------- The above article was first published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel: and was posted on the LNostra-Costa Blog with the permission of Don Miller, Editor.



I certainly do remember the '55 flood. I was working at Morris Abrams during Christmas break. What a mess. Jerry

GAIL SCHS '55 said...

Thanks for sending the article about the floods, Ivan. Gail Innes

SANDRA SCHS '55 said...

Grazie, Ivan! (I think that's how you say thanks in mother always insisted that my years of Spanish ruined my Italian...and she was right!). Anyway, I wouldn't have known about the flooding, so I appreciated being able to call my brother and finding out that they are all okay.

Anyway, it sure did bring back memories of '55.

Sandra Henson

Don Miller said...

Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.