The rain that fell on the Central Coast last week is just a drop in the bucket compared to the historic storm of 1969, which dropped nearly a foot of water in 48 hours on Jan. 20.
“You had a full half season of rain in two days in the San Luis Obispo event,” KSBY Chief Meteorologist Dave Hovde said.
It was 50 years ago Sunday that storm clouds dropped 10.5 inches of rain on San Luis Obispo County over the course of two days.
“It went up to your knees throughout the house,” SLO resident Rick Monroe said.
Monroe was 15 years old when the storm submerged his Laguna Lake neighborhood.
“At the time, I had a paper route,” Monroe said. “I had a friend that had a rowboat and I did some of the paper route in the rowboat up and down the streets.”
Allen Root, who graduated with Monroe, remembers the chaos he experienced in his neighborhood on SLO’s west side.
“The underpass under the train tracks on Johnson Avenue was full to the brim with water,” Root said. “Logs floating, water everywhere.”
The punishing rains were not only relentless but unpredictable.
“Back then, you might’ve known there was a chance of rain, but to figure out rain rates and stuff like that, there wasn’t much defense against it,” Hovde said about the lack of radar available in the 1960s.
Compared to the cell phone alerts we receive now, Monroe said he remembers being left in the dark when it came to information about the storm.
“There was no way of getting alerts, you didn’t know what was happening or how long it was gonna be,” Monroe said.
The torrential rain lasted about 48 hours, but the damage left behind by the storm was felt for months, years later.
One newspaper headline published by the Telegram Tribune read : “4-inch rainfall leaves county wet and weary.”
Symphony plays in the background as Bill Pierotty, a researcher at the SLO County Historical Society digs up the storm archives, like a photo of a boy surfing in the submerged street.
“I think about it now and it wouldn’t have been fun, but we didn’t have a care in the world at 14 and 15 so it was fun then,” Monroe said.
In today’s dollars, county disaster officials estimate the storm caused about $6.92 million in damage, according to the 2014 City of San Luis Obispo Local Hazard Mitigation Plan.
“If you get an inch of rain in an hour it really pushes infrastructure, even well designed modern infrastructure cant take rain that quickly,” Hovde said. “Imagine back in 1969.”
“There were easily 12 to 15 homes full of mud,” Root said of his neighborhood.
The devastation was compounded a month later when a second batch of rain tormented the County.
U.S. weather data shows SLO receives about 19 inches of rain each year. Compare that with the 39 inches of rain measured in SLO County between January and February of 1969, according to the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
“It seems like it’s been so long ago, but could it happen this year, next year, in the future?” Hovde said. “It’s possible.”