Surprise! The Bay Area Has Been Getting Hammered With Floods Since 1862

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

1940s-style cars driving through flooded a intersection in front of a store marked FURNITURE.
A flash flood, as seen on Apr. 4, 1941 on Market Street looking south towards Church Street. (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.3180)

All this rain got you down? Sick to death of grey skies and finding out just how many boots you own that look kind of waterproof but, in reality, are not at all? Same.

If it makes you feel any better, this bleak, all-encompassing torrential rain we’ve been getting hammered by isn’t actually as unprecedented or freaky as some commentators would have you believe. Outside of the on-off drought we’ve long dealt with, stormy deluges of varying degrees have been flooding the Bay Area for about as far back as records go.

Before you fall into the abyss that is wondering why the region hasn’t gotten any better at dealing with heavy rainfall, let’s just take a look back at some storms of the past. May they remind us that one day — some day! —there will be an end to all of this depressing weather.


Lithograph of K Street in Sacramento depicting the Great Flood of 1862.

During a 15-day period between December 1861 and January 1862, nearly 20 inches of rain fell on San Francisco. The city wound up on the receiving end of 24 inches total over the course of a month. (By comparison, SF and Oakland have so far received 13 and a half inches of rain from these recent atmospheric rivers.) Sacramento had it far worse, though.

In January, 1862, the Sacramento Bee reported that the “condition of the state” was “watery” — “a vast seas such as was never before witnessed here, and this entire district has become a series of desolation.” Between the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, “what movable property such as houses and fences that the water might have left, was broken up and scattered by the joint action of wind and waves.” Livestock losses devastated the entire region. To offer assistance to their neighbors in the north, San Francisco quickly sent $5,000 in cash and “cooked provisions” to Sacramento. That was despite the fact that weather-related issues abounded in San Francisco even two months after the widespread floods.


On March 22, 1862, the Weekly Butte Democrat reported a new disaster. “On Friday morning last, a lake, which has been forming in the vicinity of the Mission, among the hills, burst its banks and rushed forth in vast volume of water, tearing away gardens, banks, fences in its course. The pond, or lake, was nearly half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide and over twenty feet deep. About 100 feet of the Market Street Railroad was carried away.”

Despite what you might have heard, the Bay Area has not seen floods this bad ever since.


Black and white image of classic San Francisco trolley running through an empty flooded street.
A United Railroads streetcar trundles through a flooded 16th Street (facing towards South Van Ness). (OpenSFHistory / wnp32.0307)

In September 1904, 3.25 inches of rain fell in San Francisco in 24 hours, breaking a city record. And things were bad across the entire region. The Bakersfield Morning Echo reported that, “At Napa, San Jose, Stockton and many others, the rainfall has been unprecedented for September.”

Later that month, the Salt Lake City Tribune noted: “The unprecedented rainstorms continue, the precipitation being ... 4.42 inches, more than four times the amount ever before recorded [in San Francisco] in the month of September. At the Cliff House, several windows were broken by the spray driven in from the ocean.”


1930s: A motorcar and a streetcar marked 'CASTRO', side-by-side, working their way through the flooded northeast corner of Church and Market. (OpenSFHistory / wnp30.0091)

At the end of 1937, the Pasadena Post reported extensively on storms that were ravaging California. On Dec. 12, it described the situation in San Francisco thusly: “Planes grounded. Four ships battered. Shipping at a standstill. Slight damage from gales. Five persons killed, indirect result of storms.”

The following day, the paper reported: “Flood waters smashed through ... the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys today in the aftermath of one of the most severe rainstorms on record ... The rest of the state was digging itself out of the mud and the debris left by receding waters.”


View north at the intersection of Market and Church Streets, after a 'flash flood' that happened after the city was hit with almost an inch of rain in less than an hour. (For context, the block across the intersection is Safeway now.) (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.4927)

On April 4, 1941, the Contra Costa Gazette wrote: “San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Santa Rosa and peninsula cities reported one of the heaviest sustained rainfalls of their experience.

“In San Francisco, more than half an inch fell in 30 minutes. In Mill Valley, 1.87 inches of rain fell between midnight and 8 a.m. Marin County creeks filled quickly and overflowed over streets and highways. There were some landslides. Water also poured into the San Pablo underpass connecting with the San Francisco Oakland Bay bridge, trapping automobiles. There also was water in the South San Francisco underpass on Bayshore Highway.”


A man stands outside a corner store named Busy Bee Market behind a deserted flooded street.
46th and Irving flooded after a storm in November 1952. (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.7888)

This storm was so terrible, it was front page news all the way in South Carolina. On Jan. 15, 1952, the Times and Democrat reported: “A raging storm roared across Northern California ... It gave California its worst winter in half a century ... Countless trees came down in hundreds of towns, breaking power and telephone lines. Many communities were without electricity or gas. San Francisco’s rainfall for the season reached 17.91 inches, the most on any comparable date since 1890.”


1950s style cars line up in two-way traffic on a flooded, tree-lined road.
In November 1960, the Park-Presidio Bypass through Golden Gate Park flooded after heavy early morning downpours. It caused chaos for commuters. (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.7889)

The massive storm of Nov. 1960 caused the most havoc in Oregon and Washington, but the aftermath in the Bay was newsworthy, as evidenced by the photo above. San Francisco got an inch and a quarter of rainfall in one day.


Storms in January 1982 resulted in major landslides and flooding throughout the Bay Area. Here, a couple rows a dinghy through San Rafael. (Vincent Maggiora/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The 1982 storms that pummeled the Bay were particularly horrendous. The Selma Enterprise reported on Jan. 14, 1982 that, “More than three dozen people died in Bay Area rain, flooding and mudslides and seven north state counties have been declared disaster areas.”

The deluge blanketed the entire Bay Area, as seen in this graphic by the Modesto Bee:

The ‘Modesto Bee’ made this graphic to drive home the widespread destruction caused by the storms of January 1982. (Modesto Bee / Bee Graphics)

Here’s what the flooding looked like in Guerneville. Yikes.

Eight people and a dog travel in a small motorboat in front of a sign that reads "Abby's Playland."
January 1982 flood in Guerneville. (Steve Ringman/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


West bound I-580 in Oakland flooded on Dec. 10, 1996, after a levee at the Gallagher and Burke Quarry gave way, deluging tons of dirt and water onto the freeway below. Four vehicles got stuck in the aftermath. (MICHAEL MACOR/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In December 1996, nearly 68,000 homes between Eureka and San Luis Obispo — many of them in the East Bay — dealt with storm-related blackouts. San Rafael got hit hardest with 3.10 inches of rain in one day. The entire Bay Area was under a high wind advisory, SFO got hit with a rash of delays, and traffic chaos was everywhere. Parts of 101 got coned off, I-580 in Oakland was closed because of a broken water main, mudslides blocked Highway 17 between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz, and flooding shut down Highway 121 in Sonoma County.


Partially submerged SUVs work their way down a flooded road. Four men stand on the back of one vehicle.
New Year's Eve 2005/’06 on Soscal Street in Napa. It flooded with about four feet of water. (Michael Macor/ The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

2005 started with flooding in Sacramento, saw parts of Yosemite closed because of flooding in May, then ended with a series of storms.

Before 2006 got ready to roll in, the Modesto Bee relayed that: “Areas north of the San Francisco Bay Area, already saturated from earlier onslaughts of rain and wind, bore the brunt of nature’s fury with rainfall totals averaging about four inches [in 24 hours]. Some mountainous areas near the Humboldt County coast got as much as six inches.” SFO had delays on “most flights” and parts of I-5 and 101 closed. Not a party.


If current forecasts are to be believed, the Bay is scheduled for a break in the rain next week ... before more storms at the end of the month. Good luck out there.