California was devastated by the worst seven days of rain and flooding to hit the region in almost a century. Rains and strong winds whipped most of the state from March 12 to March 19 causing damages estimated at $2 billion. This exceeded the first deluge of rains that hit California in January. Damages from that encounter were set at $570 million.
The flooding in March left at least 15 people dead and caused 49 of the state’s 58 counties to be declared federal and state disaster areas. An estimated 10,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and over 2,000 people had to live in shelters.
In the north, the swelling Salinas and Pajaro rivers flooded roads into the Monterey Peninsula - cutting it off from the mainland.
About 50 miles west of Fresno, the collapse of twin bridges on Interstate 5 closed roughly 180 miles of California’s main north-south roadway. Four cars had plunged into the swollen creek causing six fatalities as a result of the collapse.
Along Monterey Bay, flood waters mixed with raw sewage from overloaded water treatment plants, had polluted vast areas of land. The 5,000 residents that were forced to evacuate were told to disinfect everything when they returned to their homes. Residents along the Russian River in Sonoma County were told to boil their water due to the risk of contamination. Raw sewage poured out continuously into Monterey Bay for four weeks as a result of the flooding.
Officials in Sonoma County are studying maps of Guerneville and Monte Rio on the Russian River. Both places have been flooded twice since January, and the county says it may be cheaper to buy the damaged homes and businesses and demolish them.
In Ventura County, a fence was erected around the entire town of La Conchita, where a collapsing coastal bluff threatened the community. Nine homes had already been destroyed from the previous week. Some 50 residents signed liability releases so county officials would allow them to stay.
Unfortunately, the flooded fields and collapsed bridges in Northern, Central and Southern California do not tell the whole story. The winter had left the Sierra Nevada with a snowpack several times its normal depth.
State officials feared that if more heavy rains occured or if an unusual stretch of warm weather sped the spring thaw, large sections of the rich agricultural valleys would be flooded again.
Workers tried to alleviate the situation by releasing water out of Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir. A distinct balance had to be reached between the water being released to allow room for melting snow from the mountains, while being careful not to overload rivers already flowing at flood stages.
An 1,880 foot wide dam in California’s northeastern fishing country is still in danger of collapsing as a result of the heavy rains. Erosion from swift moving water caused the 104-year-old earthen dam on Lake Leavitt to start leaking.
The damage was repaired quickly, but residents and officials are concerned how long it will last. If the dam collapses, U.S. 395 and countless communities and businesses will be affected. Fortunately, Lake Leavitt dam is the only one of California’s 1,220 dams in danger.
Consumers are being hit hard in the supermarket due to over $400 million in crop losses in California’s rich Salinas Valley, called the nation’s salad bowl because of the huge amount of produce grown there.
Some $70 million in lettuce crops alone were damaged in the region where over half of the nation’s winter lettuce is grown. The flood waters also washed out highways, slowing distribution of the crops that were salvaged. Monterey County’s agricultural areas were also hit hard with over 3,100 acres of farm land under water.
Prices of California-grown artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, lettuce and strawberries have risen substantially since the flooding in March.
Although the full impact has yet to be seen, shoppers are already experiencing sticker shock reminiscent of last January’s floods in California.
Lettuce, sold normally for $0.50-$1.00, is now going for $2.00-$2.75 a head. Prices of broccoli and spinach have increased 40%. Leafy vegetables seemed to have suffered the worst.
California grows 55% of the entire nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables. Countless acres have been soaked and washed out roads made it hard for farmers to assess the full extent of the crop damage.
Stores are left looking for alternative suppliers, such as Florida farmers, to keep shelves stocked and prices under control. The entire U.S. crop of artichokes and avocados are grown in California as well as close to 95% of all brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Fortunately, California’s wine industry escaped serious damage. Since grapes are harvested in the fall, only the buds are on the vines.
Even if rain and debris damage the buds, there’s still plenty of vines that can produce more grapes in time for harvest.
Immigrant farm workers in regions hit by the floods are now facing the possibility that they may have to move elsewhere to find employment. Many of the 40,000 men and women who work in the fields at harvest times could lose their livelihoods because of the flood damaged crops.
In Pajaro, the J.M. Smucker Company’s processing plant has it’s production levels dependent on the level of fruit harvested for the season. The production levels dictate how many part and full time laborers are needed during the season. With the rash of flooding, workers are hoping the plant will bring in fruit from elsewhere, or there may be no demand for their services.
Fortunately, there is some good news for the victims of March’s flooding. Since the majority of counties in California were declared state and federal disaster zones, affected residents have the opportunity to claim their losses from the floods in their 1994 tax returns, instead of waiting to claim it as part of their 1995 tax return.
When the President signs a declaration of disaster, the area becomes eligible for federal assistance. Another consequence of this designation is the option for taxpayers who have sustained a casualty loss to deduct the loss in the tax return for the year immediately preceding the year in which the loss occurs.
This gives victims quick access to any allowable tax refunds from the casualty.
Many property owners may have a deductible casualty loss even though there is no structural damage to their home or business.
Land owners whose property has been damaged by the disaster may apply for special property tax relief.
Kevin Kraff is an editor with the Disaster Recovery Journal.