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The rain train floods the Sierra

Mark McLaughlin

It was called the storm of the century, or at least the worst in 75 years. A strong southwesterly flow had developed in the upper atmosphere over the eastern Pacific Ocean, setting the stage for a series of moisture-laden storms to slam the Sierra Nevada in December 1955. Driven by a vigorous jet stream, low-pressure systems raced toward California at nearly 100 mph; one storm traveled 2,375 miles in 24 hours! Fifty years ago this month, the region’s lucrative Christmas holiday period was seriously impacted by a deluge of heavy rain and wet snow from Dec. 16 to Dec. 26. For 10 days, a juicy storm track of subtropical moisture known as the “Pineapple Express” funneled a pipeline of torrential rain into the Tahoe-Truckee region. Almost balmy temperatures raised the snow level to 9,000 feet while incessant rain saturated the ground and melted much of the region’s promising 3-foot snowpack. This rain train from Hawaii overwhelmed rivers draining the Sierra, including the Truckee, Yuba, and Feather, as they swelled with the glut of inflow. During one extended downburst, 10 to 13 inches of rain fell in a 72-hour period and generated a classic wet-mantle flood in which warm rain rapidly melts an existing snowpack. Nine out of 10 floods on the Truckee River are wet mantle events. Nothing turns to somethingOn Dec. 21,1955, after five days of relentless wet weather, officials who were keeping a close eye on the rising Truckee River stated there was no cause for alarm. Even though steady rain continued to soak the Truckee River watershed, the weather bureau reported “no menacing storms appear on the weather maps and that a series of storms appear unlikely at this time.” Other local experts, including the Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service and water districts also saw no immediate danger. Despite this optimistic outlook, the Reno-Sparks community remembered the damaging flood from just five years before (Thanksgiving 1950) and swung into action. Business leaders demanded that the city revive the Reno Flood Operating Committee, organized after the 1950 disaster. Reno City Manager Ira E. Gunn ordered 30,000 burlap sacks flown in from McClellan airfield near Sacramento. The sacks were quickly filled by volunteers and the National Guard and stacked along the riverbanks. Walls of sandbags were piled in store entrances, holiday window displays were pulled down, and basement merchandise was moved to higher ground. Department stores and the Hermann and Wilson car dealership near the river moved all their stock and cars out from river level showrooms. Parking meters were removed from the five downtown bridges so large construction cranes, supplied by local contractors, could pull logjams and debris away from each of the city’s bridges. The clouds unloadThe Reno and Sparks communities were preparing for a fight and they got one. On the evening of Dec. 22, the weather service corrected its earlier forecast and alerted the media that a very intense storm was on the way. Two days before Christmas, the bottom fell out of the clouds. More than two inches of rain pounded Reno in 24 hours, while five inches drenched the upper Truckee watershed. On the Sierra west slope, Blue Canyon broke the 24-hour record with 9.31 inches, beating the old record of 8.66 inches set during the November 1950 flood. Sticky, wet snow in the high country pulled down power lines and severed all direct communication between western Nevada and California. Nearly every power plant and bridge on the Truckee River upstream of Reno was heavily damaged or destroyed. Giant boulders crashed down onto Highway 40 east of Truckee. Some rocks were so big that they had to be drilled and then dynamited before bulldozers could push the debris aside. No newspapers nor mail arrived in Truckee for five days. Floodwaters along Commercial Row caused $6,000 in damage, not to mention lost tourist revenue. Tahoe City had no electricity or phone service for three days. In Reno, the raging torrent jammed massive logs against downtown bridge supports and sent a wall of water rushing into the downtown district. Homes and buildings built within the river’s floodplain were swamped worse than the disastrous 1950 flood, and residents were forced to flee. Carefully wrapped Christmas gifts were placed high in tree branches for safety. The high water transformed Reno’s municipal airport into a lake 4-feet deep and closed it down for three days. Every highway north, south, east and west out of Reno was shutdown. At the Stead Air Base, all Christmas furloughs were cancelled and hundreds of airmen were deployed to Reno with radios, jeeps, and trucks. They joined National Guard troops in sandbagging and policing the streets. Then, it got coldFinally, on Christmas Eve, cold air from the Gulf of Alaska changed the rain to snow and the river began to recede. Overnight the swirling flakes descended on Reno’s flood ravaged scene, covering everything with a beautiful mantle of white. Reno residents awoke to their first white Christmas in years. Precipitation totals from the storms were impressive. More than 18 inches of rain fell in Truckee before it changed to snow, and 22 inches were recorded at Donner Memorial State Park. Blue Canyon reported in with more than 45 inches, nearly all of it rain. (Precipitation is rain and melted snow combined.)Only one fatality was reported in Nevada, but California suffered 48 deaths due to the flood. The 1955 Christmas flood caused $155 million in property damage in western Nevada and California (equivalent to nearly $1 billion today). President Dwight Eisenhower declared the effected regions federal disaster areas. The battle was over, but not the war. The major hydrologic events of 1950 and 1955 catapulted Truckee River flood control to the front burner of local politics and the community agenda. Controversy over the handling of Boca Reservoir fueled an ongoing conflict between California and Nevada over how the Truckee should be managed. Boca (with 41,100 acre feet of storage) was just the first step in an ambitious plan to tame the unpredictable Truckee River and its tributary systems, but there was already hot rhetoric flying about how it was used in the ’55 Christmas flood. Indicative of the heated “water war” mentality, when people insisted that Boca dam be used to protect their communities, one member of the committee charged with implementing the Truckee River Decree stated, “Boca was not built for a flood control reservoir. Nothing in the [1915] federal court decree or the [1934] Truckee agreement shows Boca should be operated for flood purposes.”Although Boca was built primarily to maintain a minimum required water flow for two Nevada water agencies, but according to a Reno Evening Gazette editorial, Washoe County taxpayers had financed 50 percent of the Boca dam construction costs. By law, the bond money could only to be used for flood control, not water storage, and the 1935 Legislature recognized this in its preamble to the act. Ultimately, the 1955 flood speeded up the approval and construction of Prosser and Stampede reservoirs, completed in 1962 and 1970 respectively. For skiers, the fresh snow that began falling on Christmas Day added up to five feet. The ravaged ski slopes were transformed into a winter wonderland of powder. From Sugar Bowl Ski Resort came the most impressive statistic of all. Resort Manager Walter Haug said “Every reservation made for the holiday week was kept despite the storm – including many visitors from Southern California.” Some forces of nature you just can’t stop. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2,” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.


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