Monday, Feb. 23, 1998:
On one of the worst days of the 1997-98 El Nino weather event, a woman awaits rescue after becoming trapped in her sport-utility vehicle in Placerita Creek, which
went from nearly dry to a raging torrent in mere moments.
About the El Nino winter of 1997-98: During drought years, Santa Claritans tend to reminisce fondly about the times it used to rain. How quickly we forget. There was nothing particularly enjoyable about the winter of 1997-98. Homes in Mint Canyon were destroyed in the torrential flooding, Placerita Canyon residents had to be dug out of the swollen creek, and in the Newhall Pass, Beale’s Cut went from a 90-foot-deep historic monument to a mud puddle. When the sun came out, locals found the cut half-filled in.
It had been more than 50 years since California experienced four wet winters in a row. That was the case from 1994-95 to 1997-98. The El Nino period actually started with the winter of 1982-83, the wettest and snowiest on record. But after a February 1986 flood, California entered an extended, six-year dry period through 1991-92. The winter of 1992-93 was wet, 1993-94 was dry, and then came the rain that wouldn’t go away.
El Nino conditions developed in March 1997 and would eclipse the previous record-setting El Nino event of 1982-83. February 1998 was the worst for most localities. It dumped 16.58" of rain on the Santa Clarita Valley, the wettest February on record. Readings showed the wettest month ever at UCLA (20.51"); the wettest February at the Los Angeles Civic Center (13.79"), Bakersfield (5.36") and Mojave (6.70"); and the wettest month in 132 years at both Ventura (18.91") and Santa Barbara (21.74"). Central and Northern California weren’t spared; for San Francisco, 1998 brought the wettest February (14.88”) in 148 years of measuring rainfall.
Storm damage to Ventura, Los Angeles Counties on just one day, Feb. 23, was estimated at $20 million. For the period of Feb. 9 to March 1, 1998, estimates exceeded $475 million statewide. By March 1, fifteen thousand people had filed with FEMA for federal disaster relief.
Further reading: The California Winter of 1997-98, FEMA, 3-3-1998.
About the photographer: Photojournalist Gary Thornhill chronicled the history of the Santa Clarita Valley as it unfolded in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. From car races in Saugus to fatal car wrecks in Valencia; from topless beauty contests in Canyon Country to fires and floods in the various canyons; from city formation in 1987 to the Northridge earthquake in 1994 — Thornhill's photographs were published in The Los Angeles Times, The Newhall Signal, The Santa Clarita Valley Citizen newspaper, California Highway Patrolman magazine and elsewhere. He penned the occasional breaking news story for Signal and Citizen editors Scott and Ruth Newhall under the pseudonym of Victor Valencia, and he was the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Station's very first volunteer — and only the second in the entire LASD. Thornhill retained the rights to the images he created; in 2012, he donated his SCV photographs to two nonprofit organizations — SCVTV and the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society — so that his work might continue to educate and inform the public.