More Flood Tales
1,000 Years is Probability, Not Forecast
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
Marge George, like the other people who survived the ’64 flood, has stories she cannot forget.
Marge ran the Forks of Salmon Store, which, in those days, was located at the mouth of McNeal Creek barely up the South Fork from where it joins the North. All night long her family watched the rise of the creek, which is pronounced “crick” on the Salmon River.
Then in the middle of the night, a recently logged patch upcreek slid in and blocked the flow. People remember that suddenly the creek ran almost dry. When it broke loose, a slug of mud and debris slammed into the back end of the store, an old transplanted barracks.
She remembers that it shoved the whole building several feet off its footings and totally crushed the back bedroom. Marge had her 2-year-old Katy in her arms in the darkness and her husband Dave went scrambling for a flashlight, not knowing whether their other kids were alive.
Her daughter Muggs Nichols was then seven and remembers that the roof in her room had caved in on her back and her father pulled her to safety through a small window. They tried to drive downriver to the school yard but the McNeal Creek bridge was already out. A few hundred yards upriver a giant slide had blocked the road.
Marge and Dave, with all of their four kids in tow, had to walk up what was left of the South Fork road, all barefoot because they’d fled the house so quickly. Muggs remembers the one-mile walk up to her grandmother’s house as noisy, stepping in mud, with rocks falling around them, and, more than anything, scary.
Last week the Klamath River ran 12.5-feet high in Orleans and the Trinity ran at 15-feet in Hoopa. By comparison, the heights 48 years earlier were 55 feet and 57 feet, respectively. The ’64 flood, labeled as either a 100-year event or a 1,000-year event, left an indelible mark on the landscape and on the memories of the people who witnessed it.
Jesse Allen, now the post master in Forks of Salmon, was a sixth grader in Hoopa when the flood struck. Her father Leon ran Allen’s TV repair on Mill Creek and she remembers placing sticks along the bank to gauge the rise of the water.
She was assigned to loading for evacuation of the complete Encyclopedia Britannica set, 30 volumes with 10 activity books and two beefy dictionaries, that her mother had just bought.
Her father was intent on loading a particular TV in the shop, the first color set in the Hoopa valley, plus an eight-foot chest freezer full of produce and fish.
Debris started to form a dam in the Trinity gorge and fallen trees, huge stacks of lumber from the mill yards and pieces of houses added to the pile-up.
All the bridge approaches had washed out but she and her family stayed at the home of her best friend, a definite benefit in her mind.
Heavy, warm rains started on December 21, 1964, and continued for days. Several rivers in Northern California peaked by the next day. Many bridges were destroyed, power lines went down and most towns were cut off. The town of Klamath at the mouth of the river was submerged in 15 feet of water.
Frank Woodman, now in his 80s, worked in those days at the Orleans veneer plant and still lives along Red Cap Road in a place that, in a drier winter, seems high above the river.
His home was safe but quickly the beginning stretch of Red Cap Road was undermined and crumbled into the Klamath. He remembers that the rain fell without cease and at 2 am the temperature was an un-seasonal 70 degrees with heavy winds. He said there was a heavy snow pack which compounded the runoff.
A huge slide had plugged the mainstream Salmon River at Bloomer Mine and, when the blockage finally collapsed it loosened a wall of water which scoured out the Somes Bar store at an earlier river-bank location and also destroyed the Orleans Bridge.
Woodman, who was also a columnist for a newspaper out of Willow Creek, said the river had a crest in its center that was 20 feet higher than at the banks. It carried trees, oil drums and parts of buildings. Neighbors who’d evacuated their homes tried moving to the Orleans School for shelter but that structure caught fire, destroying what few possessions the evacuees had been able to move there.
Water even licked over Highway 96 as it ran through Orleans and he recalled later finding dead fish along the road.
Richard Hiett, a garbage driver with Scott Valley Disposal was 13 years old during the flood. He remembers three-feet of snow on the ground in Etna when the storm started with 10-feet at the top. The storm brought warm rain that melted snow up to 7,000 feet, he said.
Reports came that a log jam was blocking Etna Creek upstream and threatening to throw the flow toward to his house, which was built on an older channel. On Christmas Eve Richard’s world was full of the noise of boulders the size of pick up trucks rolling down the creek. He got no sleep.
He recalls traveling with his father visiting Salmon River relatives that next summer and hauling a big trailer carrying a few horses. The bridge where the road crossed the Salmon near Wooley Creek was still not replaced. They had to ford the river.
His father made it on the second try but Hiett remembers the truck bouncing over the boulders and drifting downriver in the summer flow.
A half century later, people still wonder: Can it happen again?
Toz Soto, fisheries program coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the factors that led to flood damages in both 1955 and 1964 included a lack of appropriate engineering standards for roads and bridges, and failure to understand natural processes. This was all compounded by warm rain falling on deep snow.
As an example, he said a smaller but substantial flood in 1997 wiped out many forest roads built in the 70s and 80s. The effects of the 1987 fires made it worse. He warned that Dillon Creek, Elk Creek and Salmon River would likely have more severe flood events in the future because of recent severe fires.
He also cited an example at Butler Creek, a tributary of the Salmon, where the bridge design blocked the channel in 1964 and caused deposition of large boulders, logs and other debris. This caused the channel to migrate which undermined a hotel building.
“Plus, the hotel was built in a bad spot,” he added. There is not any record of large floods before 1955 but there are oral reports of large floods in the late 1800s, Soto said.
Another longtime flood watcher in the area is Nancy Dean, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Eureka for nearly 20 years. She said that the more scientific name for the warm “Pineapple Express” style rainstorm is an “atmospheric river event.”
That describes highly concentrated moisture from the tropics that sets up and stays over an area for a few days. Interestingly, she says her search of the records does not show a deep snow bank was in place before the warm rains in 1964. She said that people who witnessed such buildups should call her at (707) 443-6484 ext. 222 with their information.
Meanwhile, she said locals should keep track of satellite pictures showing moisture coming up from the tropics. The floods in 1955 and 1964 were before the satellites were in place so forecasters had little warning of what was coming.
Another man with flood memories is Jim Bennett, nowadays the Salmon River fire chief. Bennett was 18 in 1964 and remembers walking out on the bridge near his house that crossed the river at Crapo Creek.
The bridge shuddered as logs hammered it and the deep bass rumble of rolling boulders filled the air. The bridge failed quickly but its footings are still visible.
Jim and his brother, Hoss headed off to see if their uncle John Bennett at Lewis Creek was safe, a journey worthy of a Greek myth. They needed to head upriver, drop a log to cross Horn Creek, ascend the ridge and then drop down to a crossing at Nordheimer. When they crossed the massive Bloomer Slide, it was still moving and they could smell the freshly crushed rock. That walk, which would be a 45-minute walk in ordinary conditions, took a day.
At Nordheimer, they found a recluse named Ed Haas. The night before he had chained his Land Rover to a tree and cached all his money, guns and other valuables in his Porsche for a fast getaway if things got bad.
He awoke at midnight with his house in three feet of water and looked outside to see the Porsche just floating away in the rushing water.
When they reached John Bennett’s the next day, he was already gone, headed downriver to look after Martin Johnny, an elder who lived at Butler Creek in those days.
The last people who saw Jesse Allen’s house in Hoopa reported that only the very top of the roof was above water. Her father had also lost a house in the 1955 flood, another event listed as a 100-year event.
From this repetition nine years apart, readers can discern that the “100-year” description should not give them too much comfort about the near future. It is a statement of probability, not a forecast.
Certainly Jesse Allen learned from it. When she built her own place years later on the South Fork Salmon, just opposite from where the George Store had washed out, she picked the highest ground possible.
In the News
Excerpts from The Thousand Year Flood: Six Rivers on a Rampage! The Eureka Newspapers, Inc. Souvenir Flood Edition, February 15-16, 1965.
“Personal belongings from riverside homes were carried to the Orleans Elementary school and several families prepared to camp inside. Suddenly the office door exploded open barely missing a boy standing in the hallway.”
“The first helicopter reached Orleans Saturday morning, Dec. 26th. Mrs. Joann Horn said the women stood out in the rain and cried when they saw it flying over. Besides bringing food the copter also brought the separated children to their parents on the Red Cap side of the river.”
“Everyone is working to restore order and comfort but each of the five separate areas (separated due to road slides blocking travel, LM) have exceptional men controlling the situation.”
“The town is so dependent upon food and fuel deliveries from Eureka and Hoopa that there is almost no backlog to draw from. The Forest Service which is situated on higher ground has escaped damaged and given their supplies to the general fund.”
Recollections from Hoopa
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
Mildred Nixon: The Sound Was Terrible
Mildred Nixon said, “The sound was just terrible. My brother came and said, ‘You better get out, because it’s coming through my house already.’”
“There were logs and mud coming across the highway, and I had to get out and clear out the logs so we could get to higher ground,” Nixon said.
Mickie McCardie: I Got a Burst of Energy
Mickie McCardie said, “On the day the water came up, we were helping people evacuate. The day after that, half the mountain came down on Shoemaker Road and crushed a bunch of homes.”
“It took three walls of my husband’s mother’s cabin, and the dog was still tied to the fourth wall,” McCardie said.
McCardie said the danger to her family gave her a burst of energy and the strength to climb a six-foot fence without a moment’s hesitation.
“I had a six-month-old baby, and I put her in a basket and made it over the gate with one hand on the basket,” McCardie said.
John Amos: I Heard Logs Bump the Trinity Bridge
John Amos said, “I would walk down and look at the river and it kept getting closer and closer. It came within 80 feet of the house. Normally it’s a quarter mile away.”
“You could hear the logs bumping into the main bridge over the Trinity here in Hoopa,” Amos said. “It washed out one end of the approach to the bridge, but the bridge held.”