By Miriam Raftery – Photo by Jim Larson, Caltrans
September 8, 2015 (San Diego’s East County)--Exactly 39 years ago this week, Hurricane Kathleen struck our region – the most powerful tropical cylone ever to hit San Diego and Imperial Counties. With another powerful storm, Hurricane Linda, set to sock our region starting Wednesday, it’s worth remembering just how much devastation was wrought the last such storm set to hit the identical area, on the very same day of the year.
With winds up to 90 miles an hour, Hurricane Kathleen dropped a foot of water on Mt. Laguna and sent a wall of water 10 feet high and 40 feet high through the town of Ocotillo in neighboring Imperial Valley, destroying over 70% of the town. Another wave a mile high and two and a half feet wide swept through Jacumba, demolishing a farmhouse.
The San Diego Union-Tribune said of the Ocotillo nightmare, “There was no warning, just a sudden roar.”
The powerful storm killed 13 people in California and Mexico. It also washed out Interstate 8 , crumbling freeway and destroyed a bridge at Meyer Creek, where a 600 foot wide section of the freeway was wiped out leaving a gully in its place some 35 to 40 feet deep.
Eldo Sanders jumped in his truck to try and save people stranded in Painted Gorge after hearing a call for help on his citizens band radio. He never made it; his truck was found overturned in mud and his body was later found buried in a mud bank. Another resident of Ocotillo, John Patrick Reilly, refused to evacuate his home and rescuers from the Ocotillo Volunteer Fire Department found the 63-year-old man’s body inside his home, which had flooded.
An El Centro resident, William Meanna, is believed to have died when his vehicle was swept off the Meyer Creek bridge on I-8 by a towering wall of water.
Flooding and mudslides destroyed 3 bridges on the San Diego-Arizona Eastern Railway, ultimately leading to abandonment of the railraoad line. It smashed airplanes at desert airports and turned one plane on its nose in Yuma.
One Salton Sea resort area, Bombay Beach, was completely underwater. Most of the 14 cities in Imperial County were utterly inundated.
Sheriff’s deputies and the Navy airlifted residents out of aresa west of El Centro, including an elderly woman trapped when water overflowed her bed. Shew as saved by sheriff deputies in a flatboat.
Farmers suffered too; at least 10,000 acres of sugar beets were wiped out. All routes out of Imperial County except for State Route 111 were shut down at one time.
80 families were left homeless in Mexicali and roofs blew off homes 600 miles south of San Diego.
Hundreds of homes were destroyed across the region by the storm, which caused $160 million in damage, ranking as one of the worst storms in California history.
Alan Zeingheim grew up on a ranch in Imperial Valley and recalls the flash flood that raced across the desert floor on September 9th, 1976. The next morning he recalls going outside with his dad, believing the storm had passed. “We kept noticing some sunlight reflecting off the San Diego mountains out towards the west. It was like a sparkle,” he recalls. My dad thought itw as peculiar and said it looks like water and we listened to the radio shortly thereafter and heard the flash flood warnings. .My mom was scared and pretty insisten that we vacate the ranch and we did. We returned to find out the next morning that a wall of water approximately 10 feet high swept across the imperial Valley dessert floor, wiping out the town of Ocotillo and killing some motorists who were unfortunate enough to be on Interstate 8 at the time the water came through. When we returned to our ranch, it was under 3 feet of water and my dad’s crops were ruined. It was due to this catastrophic incident that we sold our ranch and moved to the San Diego area,” Zeingheim recalls.
He warns that due to the unique geography of Ocotillo, which sits on a alluvial fan below sea level, “The same unfortunate events can happen again.”
Zeingheim has set up a website devoted to preserving the history of Hurricane Kathleen, which you can view at his music site, MusicByAlan.com/Flood.html.