According to Sam and Jim Commenting on things that irk us off, make us laugh out loud or just seem too weird too believe According to Sam and Jim: Remembering flood of '64

Friday, September 2, 2011

Remembering flood of '64

The current flooding in Vermont and other areas of the Eastern United States brought on by Hurricane Irene brings back memories of the Christmas Flood of 1964 in Northern California that I lived through. At the time my family home was located in the small town of Rio Dell in Humboldt County on the Eel River – in fact, if I remember correctly, Rio Dell is Spanish for River Valley.

An unusually cold winter froze the ground in the mountains. The freeze was followed by unusually heavy snow. Next came a Pineapple Express storm dumping more than 22 inches of rain on the Eel River basin in a span of two days. By December 23, 752,000 cubic feet per second of water rushed down the Eel River at Scotia, a small town wholly owned by the Pacific Lumber Company (world’s largest redwood mill), and just south of Rio Dell - across the river. The water rushing down the Eel that day reportedly was more than the average discharge of the entire Mississippi River basin, and caused widespread devastation throughout Humboldt County.

I had just begun my sophomore year at Humboldt State College (now University) and was home for the Christmas holidays. The day the flood hit Rio Dell I was working as a grocery clerk – a part time job started in high school - at Canaam’s Fine Foods in Scotia.

About four in the afternoon the store manager advised me to go home because the bridge between Scotia and Rio Dell was about to wash out. Later that afternoon when my dad got home from work, he and I went down to the bridge, and with several other townspeople, watched the bridge crash into the frothing angry brown waters of the raging Eel.

Still later that evening someone from the fire department asked my dad and me if we could help with rescue efforts along the river. Fortunately, our house, though close to the river, was just far enough away and high enough it was safe. But I will never forget trying to coax a family out of their house just down the road below us, with the river literally lapping at the back door. I was dumbfounded that the lady of the house didn’t want to leave because she was worried about losing her furniture.

The flood killed 19 people, 4,000 head of livestock, and caused $100 million in damage in Humboldt County alone. $100 million might not sound like much compared to the billions of dollars of damage in the East, but in 1964, and particularly for one poor rural county that was a tremendous amount of money.

A news story about the flood that I particularly remember, chronicled the awful ordeal of a family in the nearby dairy community of Ferndale. They sought refuge from the flood waters in the hayloft of their barn only to have to listen all night long to their cows frantically mooing and bawling – pleading as it were – for help to escape. But those poor cows all drowned.

Sixteen state highway bridges were destroyed during the ’64 flood, most of them on U.S. Highway 101, including the one just north of the Rio Dell city limits that only recently had been built and hailed as practically indestructible. Thousands of loose trees jammed against its pilings and proved it was not indestructible. Another ten county bridges were destroyed in Humboldt County. One county bridge that remained standing and solid as the day in 1911 when it was built, however, was a bridge linking Ferndale to Highway 101. The flood also took out the region's major railroads.

The residents of Rio Dell were cut off from the rest of the world for several weeks. I’ll never forget standing in line to receive food brought to town by National Guard helicopters. My dad hitched a ride to his work in Fortuna (north of us) in a small airplane that landed on in the middle of town on the highway. Many other Humboldt county communities also were left isolated.

I managed to get back to Humboldt State (in Arcata about 40 miles north of Rio Dell) by driving over the Blue Slide logging road opened up as a detour route by the County. A trip that normally would have taken about 30 or 40 minutes on 101 took more than a couple of hours over Blue Slide.

I hope I never have to go through a major flood again. I certainly can empathize with the citizens of Vermont and New York and North Carolina and other places. Our prayers are with you good people.

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