Once in a Hundred Years
In 1955, I was 6 years old and lived in the small Northern California town of Blue Lake. Our family lived next to a creek—the type of creek that completely dried up in the summer. It was about a mile away from the Mad River. In December of 1955 we had a major flood in Northern California. It was later called a one-in-a-100-years flood by California’s Governor. I remember my father putting me on his shoulders and walking over to the bank of the creek. As we looked at the creek we realized that it was ready to go over the bank to our home—which it did the next day. My father then took me—still on his shoulders— a short distance away to my grandparents’ house, which was about 10 feet higher in elevation than ours. There my grandparents fixed a meal for my family, on a wood stove, by the light of what they called a coal oil lamp. I don’t remember what was served, but I remember it being one of the best-tasting meals I’ve ever had. At that time I felt a sense of security—a feeling that in the midst of something that was really terrifying, I would be okay. It is an experience that I will never forget.
Once in a Thousand Years
Another flood came nine years to the month later—Christmas of 1964. Northern California, along with Oregon and Washington, got hit with a flood that Governor Edmond G. Brown of California said could “happen only once in 1,000 years,” and it was later often referred to as the Thousand Year Flood.
It was significant how these storms came about:
"They resulted from meteorological conditions similar to those of the December 1955 floods. An arctic air mass moved into northern California on December 14, 1964, and precipitation on December 18-20 produced large quantities of snow. Beginning on December 20, a storm track 500 miles wide extended from Hawaii to Oregon and produced unprecedented rainfall on northern California and melted much of the snow from the previous storms. In the Mattole River basin, just south of the Eel River, nearly 50 inches of rain was reported during December 19-23, 1964 with 15 inches observed in 24 hours. In most of the coastal mountains and many locations in the northern Sierra Nevada, the December 19-23 rainfalls totaled 20-25 inches." 
And the resulting damage was extensive to say the least:
"Many communities in Humboldt county suffered massive power outages and were left isolated (or completely cutoff from the rest of the state for a period), including the region's larger populated areas around Humboldt Bay, such as Eureka and [my home], Arcata, despite the fact that those cities were located on higher ground and not in the path of raging rivers. Unfortunate riverside communities like Klamath, Orleans, Myers Flat, Weott, South Fork, Shively, Pepperwood, Stafford, and Ti-Bar were all completely destroyed by flood waters, some of which were never rebuilt and none regained their former status. Metropolitan, Rio Dell, and Scotia were significantly damaged. Crescent City, still recovering from the tsunami created by the 1964 Alaska earthquake only nine months earlier, also suffered from the floods.
Over 22 inches of rain fell on the Eel River basin in a span of two days. By December 23, 752,000 cubic feet per second of water rushed down the Eel River at Scotia (still upstream from the confluence of the Van Duzen River), 200,000 cubic feet per second more than the 1955 flood, and more than the average discharge of the entire Mississippi River basin. Just under 200,000 cubic feet per second of water flowed down the South Fork Eel River alone, causing severe damage along its entire length. Every single stream gage on the Eel River was destroyed. The flood crest at Miranda was 46 feet. Signs were later placed on top of tall poles to mark the unusual height of the water.
The flood killed 19 people, heavily damaged or completely devastated at least 10 towns, destroyed all or portions of more than 20 major highway and county bridges, carried away millions of board feet of lumber and logs from mill sites, devastated thousands of acres of agricultural land, killed 4,000 head of livestock, and caused $100 million in damage in Humboldt County, California alone." 
By this time our family had moved from our home in Blue Lake (the one next to a creek) to a safer location in Arcata, California, which was further away from the river. Although we still experienced power outages and were cut off from all normal benefits of the transportations system (we couldn’t evacuate, no supplies could be brought in on trucks), we had made preparations and were able to weather the storm. But I will never forget going in a Safeway supermarket and seeing the shelves completely bare. There were two people fighting—arguing—over a small can of mushrooms. I also remember seeing an entire house float down a swollen, muddy river. The influence this flood had on me and my family was a powerful reminder of the principle of preparedness. We knew floods could happen where we lived, but not like this! We moved to higher ground. Higher ground is not just a physical location, it is also a state of mind and a way of life. Being prepared for emergencies is “moving to higher ground.” It means thinking of those you love and “putting them on your shoulders” like my father did with me in 1955.
Symbolically, when you prepare your family you are putting them on your shoulders. Over the years my parents tried to regularly update their supplies and succeeded in passing this wise principle on to me and my siblings. I am grateful they did.
Thanks for sharing your story and insights, Don. There are several important lessons here; these ones in particular stood out to us:
- Involve your children (if you have any) in your preparedness efforts, even if they are too young to understand the concept of a disaster. If a disaster strikes, they'll certainly remember feeling safe and protected if you're prepared, just like Don remembers.
- The importance of food storage and water storage. Watching those two customers fight over a can of mushrooms is something Don will never forget, and it's something we hope you don't ever experience first-hand!
- Knowing the possibility for certain natural disasters in the area where you live. These flood were created by out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, but after the first flood, Don's family moved to higher ground and weren't affected as much by the second, more severe flood.
Learn how to prepare for a flood.
Learn about emergency preparedness in your state.
 http:// www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/hearings/usbr_dwr/docs/exhibits/cspa2b.pdf. Accessed March 8, 2013.
 "Christmas Flood of 1964." Wikipedia.org. Retrieved March 8, 2013. (Author's Note: See especially footnote #7: California Department of Water Resources (January 1956). Flood!. Sacramento, California: California Department of Water Resources. OCLC 8135568.)