Media Life

Raging American River then. Time bomb now

Storms of 1997 left death, billions in damage in their wake
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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A reminder.

While Auburn has experienced some wild, wet and windy days this rainy season, we could still be in for worse.

Much worse.

Take early 1997 as an example.

A “now” photo taken at the American River confluence below Auburn shows a relatively placid flow of water under the Highway 49 bridge in comparison to the “then” picture of a raging river brushing up against the bottom of the span.

Picture a roaring torrent of water, colored a creamy brown by the soil that it is washing downstream into Folsom Reservoir. Whole trees are floating down the river at 20 mph, slamming into the deck of the bridge. The canyon road is closed to all but emergency vehicles, partly to keep cars and trucks off the bridge as a safety precaution but also to remove any risk from allowing in the many people wanting to have a closer look at the chilling power of nature.


First the cold

Flooding in 1997 was primarily downstream from Auburn, with the American River system joining other rivers in wreaking havoc on valley areas.

And it started with a cold front from Canada dropping down to California starting in mid-December, bringing snow as well as low temperatures.

When the Canadian chill moved out, rain and warmer temperatures moved in starting the day after Christmas 1996 and holding on through Jan. 3. The second system brought moist-warm air with it off the Pacific Ocean — the classic Pineapple Express.

The storms stacked up in the Pacific and started moving inland from Washington State to Southern California. And while Downtown Sacramento had total rain of 3.7 inches between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3, Blue Canyon — up Interstate 80 in the Sierra and at 5,200 feet — was barraged with more than 30 inches during that time frame.

Nine dead

Folsom dam operations started to pour as much water out as possible to make way for the final storms forecast. Mountain snow stayed put for the most part. But much of the sheer amount of rain that fell early into the new year flowed into the lower regions, causing an estimated $2 billion in damage, the evacuation of 120,000, and the deaths of nine people. It was considered the worst flooding to hit the area since 1955.

The warning is that the rainy season is far from over. So batten down the hatches, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

And the question is not whether it will happen again.

It’s when will it happen again.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or 530-852-0232. Thomson is an award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.