You might be forgiven for not knowing the details of one of the most catastrophic climate events to have ever struck the United States. It happened 150 years ago, in 1861. That’s more than 150 years ago and that’s a long time. People in America are likely to remember the initial year of the Civil War, while Europeans are perhaps more likely to remember the unification of Italy under King Vittorio Emmanuele. 1861 was the year Benito Juarez captured Mexico City. The apolitical among us might mourn the deaths that year of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Lola Montez.
But December of 1861 saw a 43-day storm in California, one that turned much of Central and Southern California into inland seas.
“Sixty-six inches of rain fell in Los Angeles that year, more than four times the normal annual amount, causing rivers to surge over their banks, spreading muddy water for miles across the arid landscape. Large brown lakes formed on the normally dry plains between Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, even covering vast areas of the Mojave Desert. In and around Anaheim, flooding of the Santa Ana River created an inland sea four feet deep, stretching up to four miles from the river and lasting four weeks.”
An “enormous pulse of water from the rain flowed down the slopes and across the landscape, overwhelming streams and rivers, creating a huge inland sea in California’s enormous Central Valley—a region at least 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. Water covered farmlands and towns, drowning people, horses and cattle, and washing away houses, buildings, barns, fences and bridges. The water reached depths up to 30 feet, completely submerging telegraph poles that had just been installed between San Francisco and New York, causing transportation and communications to completely break down over much of the state for a month.”
“The flood decimated California’s burgeoning economy. An estimated 200,000 cattle drowned, about a quarter of all the cattle in the ranching state (the disaster shifted the California economy to farming). One in eight houses was destroyed or carried away in the flood waters. It was also estimated that as much as a quarter of California’s taxable property was destroyed, which bankrupted the state.”
The capital of the state was shifted from Sacramento to San Francisco for six months, after Governor Leland Stanford had to row to his office and clamber in through a second story window. After the waters receded (thank you Morgan Freeman), the downtown portion of Sacramento was raised by 10-15 feet. Governor Stanford built a third story on his mansion.
The 1861-62 floods extended far beyond the borders of California. They were the worst in recorded history over much of the American West, including northern Mexico, Oregon, Washington State and into British Columbia, as well as reaching inland into Nevada, Utah and Arizona.
This kind of flood has occurred about once every 100 to 200 years over the past 1,800 years. It will happen again. (This time it will be blamed on climate change.)
One of the aspects of the climate change conversation that has frustrated me for close to a decade is that we are arguing so much that we can’t agree on common-sense preparations for climatic events we have seen in the past because we are arguing so much about the future. California is obsessed with earthquakes and has numerous regulations about building safety to ensure the buildings don’t collapse. California has regulations regarding almost everything, to the point of being the butt of jokes from many in less-regulated states. But they’ve done almost nothing to prepare for a repeat of flooding that is almost certain to occur and possibly in the lifetimes of the two people under 50 who are reading this.
Climate activists won’t push for preparation because it is sinful adaptation, which helps locally instead of globally, the way mitigation efforts do. Skeptics would regard this as wasteful spending on climate change they insist is not occurring, even though this isn’t climate change, it’s climate repeating itself.
To paraphrase my friend and co-author Steven Mosher, it’s bad enough that we cannot prepare for the future. But we can’t even prepare for the past.
One final note–this massive flooding occurred after two decades of devastating drought. California is not a user-friendly habitat.