Far away from Sacramento, outside a tiny town called Hugo in the Rogue River Valley near Grants Pass, Oregon, lives an old weatherman. Leon Hunsaker is his name.
If you go to visit the weatherman and you ask how he’s doing, he’ll likely tell you, “Not too bad, considering the mileage on the frame.” Then he’ll insist that you refresh yourself with a glass of “this wonderful Hugo water,” drawn from his well.
The weatherman lives in Southern Oregon, but he has a story to tell about Sacramento. It’s a bit of a scary story.
He and his brother built this house in Hugo in the 1970s. Inside, next to the stairs to the second floor, he keeps a little sign-in book titled Clouds and Quilts Tour.
In one of the upstairs rooms is a collection of beautiful quilts that the weatherman’s wife Margaret made. She was literally a champion quilter, and a “remarkable woman.”
She passed away two years ago, and Leon Hunsaker, now 89 years old, lives alone. Across the hall, another room has been turned into a sort of museum of Hunsaker’s long career in meteorology. It’s an atticlike space, the walls come together in an “A” shape at the top. All the way up, they are covered with weather maps, showing storm tracks on particular dates in history. There are framed newspaper articles, with accounts of historic floods or wildfires. There’s an old promotional photo of Leon during his TV weatherman days, drawing a weather map with a dark-colored marker.
The maps have started to take over other rooms in the house, too. Just a few weeks ago, Hunsaker had a giant map of California installed on a wall in his dining room. It’s laminated so he can draw on it with dry-erase markers. Tacked around the map are hand-drawn charts showing historic rainfall numbers and the position of the jet stream as it hit California on certain dates long ago.
All of the charts and maps in this room are telling the story of the Great Flood of 1862, in the Sacramento Valley. It happened some 150 years ago and 340 miles from Hunsaker’s house.
The flood was the biggest in California history. Actually, it was a series of floods. During December of 1861 and January of 1862, storm after storm pounded the state. Snow built up at unusually low elevations in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Then warm rain blowing in from the south melted all that snow and rivers swelled, and Sacramento’s undersized levees washed away.
California’s Central Valley became an “inland sea,” and by some estimates one-fourth of the real estate in California was destroyed. The state capital was temporarily moved to San Francisco. The streets of Sacramento were even raised to fight against future flooding.
It’s hard to imagine a more passionate student of the flood of 1862 than Leon Hunsaker. He’s thought about it for about 40 years and even written a book, called Lake Sacramento: Can It Happen Again?
If you’re familiar with TV show The Wire, you probably remember the detectives’ “murder board.” The board is where they tack pictures of the suspects, along with notes and scraps of evidence—all laid out on a giant board, which helps to visualize all the connections and crack the case.
His dining-room wall is his version of the murder board, and Hunsaker is doing a sort of forensic meteorology, trying to solve a mystery. Will a series of storms like the winter of 1861 hit Sacramento again? What happens if they do?
His conclusion: “When this hits again, and it will, it’s going to cost many times what Katrina did.”
The big one
Here in Sacramento, we’re all at least a little anxious about the big one. The idea is that when it comes, we’re all underwater like New Orleans, or worse.
A couple of years ago, scientists introduced the term “ARkStorm” to refer to a bibilical-style flood scenario that brings with it mass destruction, simultaneous flooding in Northern and Southern California, and billions of dollars of property damage.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the ARkStorm would likely wipe out one in four homes in the state. Sound familiar?
Call it “The Big One” or the ARkStorm, you’re pretty much talking about the same kind of scenario: California’s Great Flood of 1861 and 1862.
Every year there’s a big meeting for meteorologists and hydrologists and other scientists held at UC Davis, called the California Extreme Precipitation Symposium. The university is holding it again next week, and this year’s theme, naturally, is the 150-year anniversary Great Flood of 1862.
“We’ve never seen anything like it since,” says Marcia Eymann, Sacramento’s city historian and one of the folks scheduled to speak at the symposium. It’s sometimes called the “Noachian deluge” after the Noah of the Bible. And the storm and flooding actually extended not just throughout California but to Oregon and Nevada as well.
The city of Sacramento got 24 inches of rain in a three-week period. The average for Sacramento is 18 inches in a year. The storm affected troops fighting the Civil War as far away as Tennessee. Sacramento was underwater for three months. “The new governor—Leland Stanford—went to his inauguration in a rowboat,” Eymann noted. Then, the flooding got worse.
Eymann will make her presentation and meteorologists and hydrologists and other scientists at the event will talk about what lessons the flood of 1862 hold for our efforts to manage flooding in the modern era.
They will also note, as Gary Estes, the symposium coordinator, does, “The world is very different today than it was in 1862.”
The river has been straightened in places. Much of the mining debris has been removed from the riverbeds. The streets of Sacramento have been raised, and the levees and dams have been built high. Today, the flood-control system is designed to handle something “50 percent bigger than any flood we’ve ever seen,” Estes explained.
That’s based on estimates of river flows on the American River during January of 1862, gleaned from historic records and calculated by competent scientists from institutions like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So, we’re good, say the government scientists. The flood of 1862 can’t happen again.
No, we’re not good, says Hunsaker, because those estimates are wrong.
“Realistic flood boundaries have not been set. There are houses built where they should not have been,” he said.
How Hunsaker got to this troubling conclusion takes some explaining, and starts back before he was diagnosed with “double cancer.”
By most measures, Hunsaker has been a successful man with a lot to be proud of, down to the good Hugo water in his well. When he retired from broadcasting the weather, the papers called him a local legend.
Hunsaker was a longtime TV weatherman in the 1960s and 1970s, who introduced viewers to the idea of the jet stream, and even predicted the Northern California
flood of 1964.
He started his career in meteorology with a master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was chief meteorologist for Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and for a time was president of the Northern California chapter of the American Meteorological Association.
While at PG&E, he successfully predicted the flood of 1964, which caused Yuba City to be evacuated. He was even the subject of a documentary on San Francisco station KPIX about the event called Head for the High Ground.
His TV career hit one of its high points at KPIX in the late 1960s. It was the No. 1-rated news show in the nation, and Hunsaker was the weatherman. Newspaper accounts credit him with helping to popularize the idea of the “jet stream,” an idea that was pretty cutting edge at the time.
In the 1950s and 1960s, meteorologists helped with PG&E’s “weather modification,” or cloud-seeding program. The utility shot silver iodide into clouds over the Sierra at certain times in order to cause more rainfall and in turn generate more hydro-power from its series of electric dams.
PG&E still does cloud seeding. It’s controversial, and it was back then, too. After floods on the Feather River in 1955, citizen groups sued the state of California and PG&E, charging that cloud seeding had worsened the flooding.
As part of PG&E’s defense, Hunsaker was tasked with finding out everything he could about historical floods in the area. He ferreted out watershed records and newspaper stories. “I spent two or three years digging, all over the Gold Country,” he said. Some of the most important data he turned up had to do with snow and how melting snowpack could suddenly release large amounts of water into streams and rivers.
PG&E ultimately beat the lawsuit, and Hunsaker believes his research helped strengthen the case. For his hard work, Hunsaker got to keep all the research. He was sure he wanted to do something with it, perhaps a book. The floods of 1862 especially haunted him. “I hauled those boxes around for 40 years,” and he kept coming back to the question: What would happen if California experienced a similar sequence of storms?
In 2005, Hunsaker was diagnosed with cancer in his bladder and prostate. He had surgery to remove both, but the doctor told him he had only about three years to live.
Despite all that he had achieved, Hunsaker felt like some piece of his life’s work was not finished. He still had a story to tell about the remarkable floods of 1862.
His friend Claude Curran, a geography professor at Southern Oregon University came to visit him in the hospital. “I must admit that I put on quite a show. It was a real pity party. I said, ‘Will you pleased help me, Claude?’”
Curran couldn’t say no, and so the two launched a project that they’ve been working on ever since.
By November of that year, they had compiled many of those historic records and newspaper clippings, along with their own analysis, into a 140-page book called, Lake Sacramento: Can It Happen Again?
The opening reads, “We are two old men with something to say and not much time to say it.”
One of the quotes they came across in their research was from a man named W.T. Ellis, who they describe as a “longtime levee boss in Marysville.” In 1920, Ellis said of the 1862 events, “This flood is not generally taken into account in flood planning simply because to have done so, the expense would of been prohibitive.”
Indeed, the men found it impossible to pin down an accurate estimate of river flows.
There was a 1941 estimate by an engineer named L.E. Bossen, who figured the peak flows on the American River near Fair Oaks (where the gauging station is today) was about 265,000 cubic feet per second during the 1862 flood.
By the time Hunsaker put his book together, matters had not advanced much beyond Bossen’s estimate, and it seemed obviously too low to him now.
After all, the January storms of 1997 had caused a peak flow of 295,000 cubic feet per second on the American. There was major flooding along the Klamath, Cosumnes and Feather rivers, and local flooding throughout Northern California. Some Sacramento neighborhoods were voluntarily evacuated, some downtown and Midtown streets were underwater for a while. Communities like Wilton, Olivehurst and Modesto got it much worse as levees broke and homes were submerged. In all, there was about $2 billion in damage, and 46 counties were declared disaster areas.
The 1997 floods had just come on the heels of the 1986 floods of Rio Linda and north Sacramento, and in some places there was renewed interest in Sacramento’s historic floods. The California Department of Water Resources reviewed the literature and determined that the 1862 flood was probably similar to the 1997 storm, estimating peak flows on the American at around 295,000 cfs. He would later learn that the U.S. Geological Survey had come up with its own estimate of about 320,000 cfs.
There’s work going on now at Folsom Dam, including a small raise of the dam, construction of an auxiliary spillway and some levee work on the lower American River. According to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, that should allow for peak flows during a 200-year flood of up to about 450,000 cubic feet per second to flow into the Folsom Dam.
The dam throttles that back to about 160,000 cubic feet downstream. But keep in mind that the typical flow down the American River on a summer day is somewhere around 2,000 cubic feet per second.
On paper, that 450,000 cubic feet per second is 50 percent greater than the biggest flood on record—the Great Flood of 1862. But for several reasons Hunsaker thinks that’s not good enough.
In their monograph, “The Great California Flood of 1862,” Leonard and Robert Taylor note that the flood flows coming through the Sacramento River Delta overpowered the tide at the Golden Gate strait. “For a week … there was a continuous and forceful ebb of brown fresh water 18-20 feet deep pouring out above the saltwater.”
Of course, that brown water also owed a lot to the hydraulic mining that for years had been clogging rivers and the San Francisco Bay with sludge, and had actually raised the bed of the Sacramento River by 7 feet.
Up and down the state there were other phenomena that haven’t been seen again in 150 years. Take the rainfall recorded by Dr. Perez Snell, a Sonora dentist, whom Hunsaker calls “Tuolumne County’s pioneer scientist.” Snell measured 30 inches in 10 days at Sonora, a number that for a long time seemed to Hunsaker to be unbelievable.
“You had to wonder if he had been tapping his own medicine bag,” Hunsaker cracks. In fact, Snell’s numbers are dismissed by many scientists today.
Where the December and early January storms were cold, and produced snow at unusually low elevations, the late-January storms were unusually warm and southerly.
Hunsaker notes there had been record flooding on the Santa Ana River that year, floods that haven’t been seen since. There was record rainfall in Arizona during that time, too.
Based on his research, Hunsaker was pretty convinced that people were underestimating just how much snow had fallen that year, how much had built up on the frozen layers of ice beneath, and how much runoff was created when that snow and ice was socked by the warm rains that followed.
‘What if’ scenarios
By 2010, Hunsaker and his friend Curran were certain that the flows at the American River, at the Fair Oaks gauging station had been at least 365,000 cfs—much bigger than anyone had estimated before.
The great flood of 1862 changed Sacramento forever. It is the model for the government’s ARkStorm scenario.
They hadn’t had much luck getting anyone to listen to then up until that point, but Hunsaker decided to attend the California Extreme Precipitation Symposium at UC Davis in June 2010. The theme that year was the ARkStorm.
This was just after Hunsaker’s wife died. Symposium coordinator Gary Estes wouldn’t put Hunsaker on the regular program. After all, despite Hunsaker’s long experience, he is essentially an amateur in this field. Avid and extremely well-read, but not a professional hydrologist.
Still, Estes relented and said Hunsaker could give a 15-minute talk at the end of the day, if anybody wanted to stick around. Estes later told SN&R that he thought it was good the man had something to occupy his mind “and not be lost in his grief.”
The presentation was recorded, and the audio is posted on the symposium’s website. On the audio, Hunsaker jokes about how one of his hearing aids went out when he hit the California border. Estes helps him by showing Hunsaker’s slides on projector controlled by his laptop. The old overhead projector Hunsaker asked for had been retired a year before.
But Hunsaker knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he made quick work of it. He talked about Snell. He talked about the frozen ground, and the heavy snowfall on top of it. He asked for help, for someone to take a close look and test out the theory he and Curran had put forth.
“As you can see, I’m not too far from grass. And I would like to see this information used. If you want to come and spend the day in Southern Oregon and look at the material, all are welcome. I might even give you a glass of ice water from Hugo, and it’s great.”
In fact, he got a warm reception from the people still in attendance at the symposium, whether out of respect for Hunsaker’s theory, or just his years and experience.
There were some supportive comments, too, during the question-and-answer period. In particular, Robert Collins, then chief hydrologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, where he spent 40 years, agreed with Hunsaker that the heavy snowfall in the winter of 1861-62 had been overlooked in some estimates.
Collins says he thinks the average flows on the American River that year may have been underestimated by about 30 percent.
Hunsaker never talked to Collins again, but the comment made a huge impression.
In his dining room, Hunsaker keeps a 3-foot-long rectangular chart that he’s adapted from a graph produced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The vertical axis on the graph shows the average flows on the American River, at Fair Oaks, during heaviest three days of rain, every season, going back to 1905. The horizontal axis shows the peak flow during those storms. Every storm is represented by a point on the graph, and nearly every storm falls neatly into a line, including, the big flood years of 1955, 1964, 1986 and 1997. If you know what the average flows are, you can predict the peak flows and vice versa.
The flood of 1862 is not shown on the graph, because those measurements weren’t taken back then.
Hunsaker and Curran had the graph modified—and then printed onto a large board and laminated—by adding in data from 1862. They even paid a mathematician to do the calculation for them.
Take the three-day flood flows on the American River during the 1997 storm, then add 30 percent, per Collins, then plug that number in the Army Corps’ big graph, voilà, you get a peak flow of 414,000 cubic feet per second—far above what anyone else has estimated.
And that’s pretty conservative, said Hunsaker, when you take into account things like the Snell rainfall numbers. All told, he thinks there was a pulse of more than 500,000 cubic feet per second going down the American at its most terrible stage.
Sitting there in Hunsaker’s dining room in Hugo, it’s not always easy for a nonscientist to follow the trail of the meterologist’s evidence. By cramming his arguments into a few explanatory paragraphs, the author is probably doing the weatherman a disservice. Perhaps the best that can be done is point the reader to the source. Hunsaker’s book, the audio of his presentation and a couple of his key papers are all on the symposium website (the presentation is athttp://cepsym.info/Sympro2010, and the book is at http://cepsym.info/history).
The upshot is it would be very bad for Sacramento if he’s right. Folsom Dam and the existing system are just not built to handle that much water.
We just want to be heard
Luckily, Hunsaker is not right, said Gary Estes. “He’s a special guy. I have a great deal of respect for Leon,” Estes said. “But he’s a meteorologist, not a hydrologist.”
For one, the Snell numbers really are complete “outliers” and can’t be taken seriously, he said. And even Robert Collins, the guy who agreed with Hunsaker that the snow fall in January 1862 had been underestimated, came up with his own estimate of the peak flow on the American that year of a little more 300,000 cfs. “Maybe it could have been as high as 360,000.” But more than 400,000? “I have a tough time believing that,” Collins said. “The American River produced a lot of floodwater. But that’s an awfully high value.”
Then there are the swamp commissioners.
At the symposium this year, some long-lost records from the Sacramento County Swamp and Overflowed Lands commission are going to be revealed that Estes said will shed new light on the American River flood flows in 1862. “Here’s an actual estimate by people who were on the ground.”
At first, Estes was reluctant to reveal what the documents say ahead of the symposium. “I kind of don’t want to give away the punch line.”
But ultimately, Estes allows that the round number is about 320,000 cfs—just a bit higher than the 300,000 estimates that have been going around.
Asked why he thinks it’s important that this document is being revealed, Estes said, “Because it’s been the big bad flood of 1862. Leon is saying we’re going to have it again, and Sacramento is going to flood.”
“Well, we’ve already had another 1862: It happened in 1997,” Estes added. And we’re all still here.
Hunsaker isn’t at all convinced by this. For one, he doesn’t think much of the swamp commissioners’ ability to measure flood flow 150 years ago. He likens the argument to “a murder investigation, where the eyewitness accounts and the DNA evidence tell different stories.”
“Our argument is based on the DNA,” he added.
Even if Hunsaker is wrong, it seems his needling, and his persistence is shaking some things loose, getting us a little closer to understanding what happened in this terrible series of storms. And there’s the fact that the Estes has posted Hunsaker’s book and other papers on the symposium’s website for other scientists to see.
Hunsaker says he won’t travel to the Davis symposium this year. Estes wouldn’t put him on the agenda this time either and the travel is too difficult, he said. You can tell he doesn’t like the way it sounds, even as he says it: “Here they are having a conference on the 150-year anniversary of this flood, and they don’t want to hear from us.” It’s about the only time he sounded a little bit bitter, during this reporter’s visit to Hugo.
All this is no mere intellectual exercise for Hunsaker, or hobby to keep himself busy. He believes the difference between his estimates and those of the Army Corps is literally a life and death difference—between a relatively safe Sacramento, and one that is certain to be underwater again at some point.
“At least our conscience will be clear,” Hunsaker said. “We just want to be heard. We want to be on the record.”
By:Cosmo Gavin/Sacramento News and Review