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The Riggs Report: El Nino’s destructive footprint

1997 floods in Northern California were heartbreaking

It’s understandable, really, the enthusiasm I hear expressed about the potential for a drought-busting El Nino winter. After almost five years of dry conditions, people are weary of the drought, the calls for conservation, the scary moonscape pictures of Folsom Lake. The thought of replenishing the reservoirs and groundwater supplies is appealing.

But be careful what you wish for. With growing warnings of an intense El Nino pattern emerging, what happened here in Northern California during the last extreme system is worth revisiting, and raises a possibility that we could be trading one disaster for another.

January of 1997 represented one of the most intense periods of news coverage I ever experienced as a reporter at KCRA. Early that month, a whopper of a storm system rolled into Northern California from the Pacific. Dubbed a “Pineapple Express” because of the warm nature of the system, it brought torrential rains that fell not only on the Valley floor, but also at very high levels in the Sierra.

Too warm for snowpack, all that rain raced downhill, swelling rivers and creeks. The rain continued for days without interruption, unlike familiar patterns of east-to-west travel. It was all too much for the system. Levees failed to the north of Sacramento, first on the Feather River at Star Bend, then later at the Sutter Bypass near the town of Meridian.

The results were catastrophic. Floodwaters inundated the communities of Linda, Olivehurst, and Arboga, all in Yuba County. Three people were killed. Whole subdivisions were underwater. More than 300 homes were destroyed, hundreds more were damaged. Evacuation orders went into effect in Marysville, Yuba City, and Sutter County. Statewide, 35 counties would eventually receive federal disaster status.

KCRA 3, which later won an Emmy for its coverage, took the unusual step of tossing out all of its regular programming in favor of wall-to-wall flood coverage. All of the station’s reporters were assigned to 12-hour shifts at different trouble spots. For example, I was posted at Cirby Creek in Roseville, then later on the Truckee River.

That was how we spent the next several days, living in rain gear with soggy boots, documenting the rising floodwaters, the impact on victims, and how state and local emergency personnel were responding. It was one of the best examples of journalistic community service I’ve ever been involved with.

There still is no scientific agreement on the size and intensity of the storms that face us this winter, or that we’ll see a repeat of the 1997 system. There are ominous signs, including a significant warming of Pacific Ocean temperatures off the coast of Peru that are the highest since 1997. But there are other global weather factors, such as wind direction, that have a bearing on the coming strength of El Nino.

As we saw in 1997, monster weather brings potential hazards like levee failure, downed trees, and mudslides. It’s why state and local emergency officials are telling us to be ready with water and food supplies, batteries, and an emergency plan, just in case extreme drought relief arrives in the form of El Nino 2016.