San Diego's Worst Floods


San Diego's Worst Floods

by Jeff Smith

San Diego has a world famous climate: mild winters, temperate summers . It also averages only nine inches of rainfall a year.

In the past, when the skies poured, the city had been unprepared for the deluges. Two storms in the early 19th century turned Mission Valley into a brown, surging river. The most famous, in 1916, may have been caused by Charles Hatfield, the "Rainmaker," who chemically seeded the clouds, he said. He promised the City Council and the Wide Awake Improvement Club he would end a long drought. And he - or maybe just nature - did, at the time he said it would.

Rain fell, then poured down, like a giant spillway, to the sea. The county dams and reservoirs filled to capacity , overflowed, and then burst. Crops, buildings, people were washed away in brown torrents. At its peak, the storm bulldozed bridges and train tracks. Hatfield swore he fulfilled the requirements. The city, facing millions in damages, said no.

An even greater disaster: in 1905 the Colorado River changed its course. Instead of flowing south, into the Gulf of California, the river broke through a levee, turned west, then north, and sped downhill to a basin and formed the Salton Sea. Attempts to stop the flow turned into a war against a seemingly endless foe. At one point the new river began eroding the land in reverse - like a waterfall sped up and gouging chunks of the soft earth every minute. The "back-cutting" threatened to wipe out two border towns. And almost did, were it not for some of the most heroic efforts ever fought in peacetime.


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