Remembering the 1995 Floods: Letter from Cachagua Part 1

As today is the 14th anniversary of the March 1995 floods, the largest Carmel River flow on record, we’ve reached into the archives to bring you an excerpt from a letter written just days after the event —

Dear Bill,

Thanks for writing. It was great to hear from you. To answer your question, yes we did have a pretty good flood. And yes, we are all OK. Here’s the way it went down …

January was rainy. In fact, there were only two days in January that it didn’t rain. Sometime in the middle of all that rain there was a hard downpour that didn’t let up for 5 or 6 hours and that was all it took to cause a flood. The Carmel River got into some homes down by Rosie’s bridge in the Village and backed up into the Mission Fields neighborhood near the lagoon. At the time, it seemed like the flood of the century. Nothing like it had happened in decades.

A friend of ours has the lowest house in Mission Fields and his house and pretty much everything in it was totally destroyed. We helped him to muck the place out and it was indescribable. The furniture and appliances all floated around inside and then came to rest against the doors and windows as the water ran out. The debris was so thick, he had to use a chain saw to get through his front door – and everything was covered with a thick layer of slimy mud. He probably would have been better off if his house had simply burned down.

Back home in Cachagua, the whole thing was no big deal. The heavy rain caused the normally dry creek below our house to overwhelm the culvert where it passes under our road and back up a bit of a lake. We were afraid it might overtop and wash away the road, but the rain eased off before that happened.

As January ended, so did the rainy weather. It was warm and dry for almost the whole month of February and it looked like the rainy season had come to an early end. The creek below our place dried up, the river went down, the surface or our road got solid again. But during the first week of March, the showers returned. They were minor at first, but then we began to hear predictions that a strong storm was due to arrive on Wednesday, March 8.

Wednesday morning the sky was filled with dark clouds. Around 11:00am a light rain began to fall. An hour later it turned to a hard downpour that lasted almost two hours, but after that the rain stopped and it looked like the storm was fizzling out. I walked up the dry canyon (the rain hadn’t been enough to restart the creek) to where a little trickle of water was coming over a waterfall and wondered how dry things were going to be by fall if the rainy season was giving out this early. I sat up late reading a history of Spanish colonization in the Sonoran Desert and drifted off to sleep around midnight. Water and floods were very far from my mind.

At three o’clock Thursday morning I was awakened by the wind. It came suddenly and slammed against the house, shaking everything and scaring the cats. Frequent gusts continued hitting. I could hear tree limbs breaking and chairs overturning in the yard. Every time I was almost back to sleep, a gust would shake me awake again, whistling and screeching through every nook and cranny of the house.

Not able to sleep, I got up at 6:00, as soon as it was light. The wind was still whipping around as strongly as ever and it was raining at a good clip as well. I went outside and moved potted plants that were rolling around to more sheltered locations, piled heavier rocks on tarps and cushions that were blowing away, moved fallen limbs out of the road and generally battened down the hatches.

The rain was getting harder. I went back inside and did some paperwork. At 8:30 I was ready for some breakfast. I filled the kettle with water, but as I turned to put it on the stove the power went out. I ate some cold food and took a shower before the water got cold.

When I got out of the shower I noticed a leak was developing in the living room ceiling. The wind was blowing rain up under the eaves and over the flashing. I had to move the furniture out of the way and spread pots and pans and towels around on the floor.

Around 9:30 the wind died down, but the rain continued to fall heavily. I had a meeting to go to in Salinas and left home around 10:00. As I drove away I noticed that the creek was still dry. The radio was reporting serious wind problems from all over the place. Gusts of 120 mph had been recorded on the summit of Mt. Tamalpais. The forecast was for “periods of rain, heavy at times.”

It was raining hard all the way to Salinas, kept raining throughout the time I was there, and continued all the way back to Cachagua. At home, I found the power was still off. The creek was now flowing and filling about a third of the culvert. I watched it to see if it was rising, but it seemed to be holding steady or going down. The rain was easing off. It seemed like it had been quite a long “period” of heavy rain.

Kira, who’d been in Santa Cruz for several days, arrived. We built a big fire in the stove and boiled water for tea. Sometime during the night, the rain got heavier again. Friday morning, the power was still off and it was still raining hard. We turned on a portable radio and heard that the forecast was still for “periods of rain, heavy at times.”

Around 6:30 in the morning, I went to take a look at the creek. It had risen, but it was only filling the culvert about half way. I was relieved. Apparently this rain wasn’t going to be enough to cause any real problems. Then I noticed the bank above the road to the neighbor’s house oozing with mud. A river of mud was slowly making its way toward the road. It still had a ways to go before reaching the road surface, but it was obvious it wasn’t going to stop until the rain did.

I went in and had some breakfast. The rain continued to fall. Some fresh gusts of wind hit and started a new leak in the living room. I tended to that, then went out again.

The river of mud had reached the road, but so much water was running down the gutter that it was eating away the mud faster than it could push into the road. There didn’t seem to be much danger of it blocking the neighbor’s road. Of more concern was the creek. It was rising steadily now. The culvert was 3/4 full when I arrived, completely full a few minutes later, and then was gone from sight. The creek reached its high water mark from January – then rose higher.

I now realized that things were getting bad. I went back to the house and drove our jeep to the far side of the creek. I didn’t want us trapped at home if the road washed out. The water rose until it was about a foot shy of cresting the road, then began to hold steady. The rain was still falling heavily, but things seemed to have reached some sort of equilibrium. The force of the water blasting through the culvert was shaking the ground and, I worried, loosening up the roadbed.

Meanwhile, the mudslide had grown worse. Now whole patches of brush and grass were moving slowly down toward the road. The neighbor showed up and decided to get his car past the mud and across the creek too. As he drove past an even larger section of hillside began to go. He got his car past only moments before the leading edge of this mountain of mud reached the road. A few minutes more and the road was buried.

The rain was still falling. It didn’t seem to get any harder, but some sort of critical saturation point seemed to suddenly be reached. Mudslides broke out simultaneously almost everywhere. In any direction we looked, brush, trees and boulders were moving downhill. At the same moment, the water of the creek turned from brown to almost black and the water level came rushing up. Within moments it was cascading over the road. A powerful earthy smell began to permeate the air.

Since there was no way to prevent the creek from washing out the road, if that was what was going to happen, I went back to the house. We cooked some chicken stew on the wood stove and listened to the portable radio. The radio was saying a mandatory evacuation had been ordered for the entire 100-year flood plain of the Carmel River.

Kris called. She was alone on the ranch, with her parents and husband in town, and worried about the height of the creek outside her house. Her parents had tried to get back , but couldn’t get past a mudslide on the Cachagua road. The other way around, by the Tassajara Road, was also supposed to be impassable. As our home seemed safe from slides and floods, we decided we might as well try to get down there and help her out.

The creek was flowing over a pretty wide section of our road, which was still holding firm, so we were able to wade across to the jeep. Our road was peppered with mudslides and rocks and was pretty badly flooded at one point, but the jeep and a little shovel work got us through. We only made it about a hundred yards on the Cachagua Rd., though, before we came to an enormous mudslide that had brought a large tree into the middle of the road.

The only other people there were the Sheriff’s Rescue Squad, who had also been stopped by the slide. Fortunately, one of our neighbors was working through the slide from the other side with a backhoe and soon cleared a narrow lane. We passed through, following the Rescue Squad, and through several more slides the backhoe had already cleared, but then came to another stop. A large oak had toppled into the road blocking it completely.

We turned around and drove back up the road to find the backhoe. The narrow passages through the slides were getting narrower all the time as the mud kept pressing down. The first slide had moved completely across the road again and the backhoe was on the other side of it. I got out of the jeep and shouted through the rain and wind until I finally got his attention. He picked his way back across the slide and we followed in the trail he made back down the road to the newly fallen tree.

While we waited for the backhoe to take care of the tree, fresh mud came flowing down the road and buried us nearly up to our hubcaps. We forded a stream that was flowing over the road and reached Syndicate Camp at the bottom of the grade. This was the Rescue Squad’s destination, so the backhoe turned back and we pushed on by ourselves.

Suddenly the river came into view. It looked far bigger than I had ever imagined it would look in a flood. It looked more like a dam break. It was a thundering cascade of mud and debris filling the whole bottom of the valley. Way out in mid-channel we could see big, Grand Canyon-style standing waves.

We moved ahead. Water was flowing across about a 50-yard stretch of the road. It didn’t look deep, but it was muddy so you couldn’t really tell. We started slowly across it and I could feel that we were driving on sand and not on the pavement itself. Suddenly, we drove off the edge of the sandbar into water about twice as deep. It was almost up to the doors and I could feel the current pushing us little by little downstream. Then the front wheels found firmer ground and we regained traction.

Not a good idea to drive into water when you don’t know how deep it is – important lesson learned. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again.

We arrived at Nason Rd., the entrance to Prince’s Camp. A Coast Guard helicopter was hovering overhead and it’s downdraft was sending rain and spray swirling in every direction. Cachagua Creek seemed to be flowing everywhere. A guy in a backhoe was trying to ferry some people across an arm which was flowing right up against the Cachagua Rd., but he couldn’t find anywhere shallow enough. Looking down Nason Rd. I could see brown water surging over the bridge.

The helicopter was lowering a rescue diver on a cable toward a rooftop where some people had taken refuge from the flood. Major arms of the creek were carving around both sides of the house and it certainly looked like it could topple into the creek at any moment.

The blast from the chopper was tearing shingles and tarpaper off houses. We watched the rescue diver load the first couple of people into the basket and watched them towed up to the chopper.

We pressed on, but didn’t get far. Around the next bend, the creek appeared to be undermining the road. I got out to take a look at it before risking driving across. It didn’t look like the road was undercut too badly, but it was hard to tell. After our close call with the stream crossing I decided against taking further chances and found a safe place to park. The rain was finally easing off.

We walked on up the road to the store. The creek was coming over the bank and flowing down the road so we were glad we were wearing knee high rubber boots. Another backhoe was driving around in the water near the store without any apparent mission. As we drew near he dropped suddenly into a deep hole hidden by the muddy water. The backhoe listed over to one side and the engine died. He wasn’t going anywhere.

We footed it up the hill to Kris’s place. Her little creek had washed out its bridges, but the water was now going down and her house was out of danger. She put on her boots and we all went back down to retrieve more supplies from the jeep. While we were there, the Rescue Squad and some local firemen turned up. They also got out, looked at the road, and decided it wasn’t safe to drive further.

A young guy in a pickup pulled up. “I can probably make it,” he told us, after taking a look. “I’m going to go for it now, while there’s still some road left.”

“Yeah,” said one of the firemen, “You can probably make it. But if you don’t, you’ll definitely die.”

We all looked down into the torrent of mud and tree trunks whipping past and tried to imagine what would happen to a vehicle that flipped into it. The pickup guy shrugged his shoulders, got back into his truck, and drove back the way he’d come. The firemen laughed. A few minutes later nearly all the rest of the road fell in.

Jenson Camp, on the other side of the creek was fully flooded. We could see people wading around or standing on walls and roofs. Many had wrapped themselves in garbage bags. From time to time the sound of boulders rolling over one another on the bottom of the stream would be audible over the roar of the water. You could feel the irregular thumping and grinding through your feet like miniature earthquakes.

We walked back down to Nason Road and noticed that the creek was beginning to recede. We saw a couple of guys working feverishly to build a wall of driftwood around their already thoroughly flooded house. Each time they’d turn away to gather more wood, the wood they’d just put in place would float off. I told them that the creek was going down and that they’d be better off getting out of the water and getting warm. Although they were shivering and hypothermic, they were having none of it.

“This is just the beginning,” one of them told me. “Haven’t you seen the satellite pictures? There are three more storms coming in. The next one’s hitting tonight. They’re all going to be stronger than this one was.”

“OK,” I said. “Well, good luck.”

“Thanks for helping,” he said bitterly, grabbing at a pile of sticks floating away from his wall.

“No problem,” I replied absently, not grasping his sarcasm at first.

“Those guys are in a state of shock,” said Kira. “Do you think they’ll be OK?”

We walked back to the store. The creek was now tearing away at the bank nearest the store and ripping through a grove of large oaks. We watched one of the huge old trees topple into the stream and disappear. The little church next to the store was now being undermined. Without warning, a telephone pole fell, missing Kira by less than a foot. The wires grazed her, but neither of us jumped or yelled.

“That pole almost hit me,” she said, in a matter of fact tone of voice

“That was a close call,” I agreed, with equal unconcern. It wasn’t until the next morning that I reflected on how flat our response to this incident was and realized how much in shock we were ourselves by this time.

We went back to Kris’s place. Some firemen came to the door. They were trying to scout out an alternate route to get emergency vehicles around the washed out section of road. I went out with them and showed them the best place to ford the little stream  and cut through the fence.

It was starting to get dark. We went down the hill to see how the church was doing. The creek had eroded so much ground out from under it that it had tilted over and dipped a corner into the water. While we were there, Kris’s husband, Roy, appeared. He had driven as far as he could, then walked the rest of the way. He advised us against trying to get home.

We went back to the house and, while fire trucks and other emergency vehicles rumbled back and forth through the yard, we sautéed some shrimp on a camp stove and opened a bottle of 1976 Bordoux. Dessert was banana flambé.

Coming Eventually: Letter from Cachagua Part 2

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