San Diego Disasters

To prevent flooding, Derby planned a dike and drew his map in 1853 - 1 2
Sweetwater Dam 1888 (SDHS photo)
Flood of 1916 (SDHS photo)
Flood of 1916 (SDHS photo)
PSA 182 (AirDisaster photo)
1918 mandatory flu masks at SD High School (SDHS photo)
2003 dust musk in Pacific Beach (UT photo)
SeaWiFS image 10/26/03
U-T map 10/30/03
1769 - April 11, the ship San Antonio sailed into San Diego Bay, the spearhead of the "Sacred Expedition" of Spain to begin the colonization of California. Disease and illness almost doomed this effort, but despite the real threat of disaster, the four parts of the expedition managed to converge on San Diego. The San Carlos arrived two weeks later; some of the crew had died and most were sick with scurvy. A canvas hospital was set up on the beach. On May 14, the land expedition of Capt. Rivera and Father Juan Crespi arrived where they found 21 sailors and some military men already dead and the rest ill with scurvy. A new camp was established on Presidio hill near the present site of Old Town. Gaspar de Portola and the second land expedition arrived on June 29 with a small group, followed two days later by Father Serra. Only 126 of the 219 in the four expeditions survived scurvy and other diseases.

1772 - Father Jayme wrote at the presidio that "the flood carried away what was growing" and recommended moving the mission to another location.

1800 - November 22, an earthquake of 6.5 magnitude hit the San Diego region.

1812 - An earthquake destroyed the San Diego Mission church, which was rebuilt in 1813.

1821 - A flood in Sept. or Oct. "in a single night filled the valley" according to William Smythe and changed the course of the river to flow into False Bay rather than into the harbor. It washed away many of the rancherieas and early homes in Old Town.

1828 - A flood changed the course of the river to flow into the harbor rather than the False Bay. In 1853 Lt. George Derby built a dam that turned the river into False Bay again.

1832 - The malaria epidemics 1832-33 and smallpox epidemics 1837-39 kill many Indians.

1855 - A flood destroyed the 1853 Derby Dike, and changed the course of the river to flow into the harbor.

1860 - Storms and heavy rain throughout the state of California caused flooding in San Diego.

1861-65 - The floods of 1861-62 were caused by excessive rain, with a total of 15.75 inches falling in the year of 1862. This was followed by a four-year drought. Only 3.87 inches of rain fell in the county 1862-63, and less than 5 inches fell 1863-64. Ranchers drove their cattle to the mountains and into Baja California, and the once-great cattle industry of California was virtually destroyed.

1862 - May 27, an earthquake of 6.0 magnitude hit the San Diego region.

1862-63 - A smallpox epidemic killed hundreds of Indians and Mexicans in Southern California. Beginning in San Juan Capistrano, the epidemic reached San Diego in 1863.

1867 - In March, after two years of heavy rain, a flood washed away homes in Mission Valley and a large section of the earthen Mission Dam.

1872 - April 20, a fire destroyed the business section of Old Town.

1884 - A record 25.97 inches rain that year caused a severe flood that washed out bridges and railroad trestles. The Derby Dike destroyed in 1855 had been rebuilt in 1875 but was almost washed away again in this flood. Part of Presidio Hill was cut away to provide dirt to keep the river channel flowing into False Bay. The first Morena Bridge would be built across Mission Bay due to the frequent high waters. The spring produced a many butterflies that were followed by cutworms and caterpillars causing damage to crops. In 1888, the Sweetwater Dam was built, the first of 7 dams constructed over the next 10 years that would reduce the risk of flooding.

1905 - Sixty people were killed by a boiler explosion on the Navy ship Bennington in San Diego harbor. Heavy rains caused a flood in Mission Valley that washed out the north end of the railroad bridge.

1916 - January 27, heavy rains caused severe flooding in San Diego, washing out all but two of the city's 112 bridges and breaking the Lower Otay Dam. 20 people drowned in the Tia Juana River Valley flood and 135 Little Landers settlers were left homeless. Charles "Rainmaker" Hatfield was blamed, and was never paid his $10,000 fee from the city. During the next 35 years, 9 additional dams were built that helped reduced the severity of flooding in 1927, 1937, 1978, 1980.

1918 - The "Spanish flu" killed 368 people in San Diego. Over 600,000 Americans died from the pandemic, over 20 million people worldwide.

1927 - A heavy rain storm caused a serious flood in Mission Valley, and an outbreak of typhoid fever.

1970 - The Laguna fire, the county's largest fire until 2003, burned 175,425 acres, killed eight people and destroyed 382 homes. In 24 hours the fire burned from near Mount Laguna into the outskirts of El Cajon and Spring Valley.

1978 - September 25, one of the worst air crashes in U.S. history occured in San Diego when PSA flight 182 approaching San Diego airport was struck in mid-air by a small Cessna. 144 people were killed, including 7 on the ground in North Park. 22 dwellings were damaged or destroyed.

1984 - A gunman opened fire in a San Ysidro McDonald's restaurant, killing 21 people.

1985 - 67 homes were destroyed in the Normal Heights fire.

1996 - 54 homes were destroyed in the Carlsbad Harmony Grove fire.

1997 - March 26, in a Rancho Santa Fe home, 39 members of Heaven's Gate cult were discovered dead and covered in purple shrouds after the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil. They apparently believed they were shedding their earthly "containers" to catch a ride on a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

2003 - Oct. 25, the worst fire in the history of San Diego County began near Ramona Saturday at 5:30 pm when a lost hunter set a signal fire. This Cedar fire quickly spread to become the largest fire in California history, consuming over 272,000 acres. With the De Luz fire that started Oct. 19 during live fire exercises on Camp Pendleton, and the Otay fire, and the Paradise fire near Valley Center, these in total burned over 400,000 acres or 18% of the county land area of 2,166,691 acres, destroyed over 1800 homes valued at $700 million, killed 16 people, filled the air with smoke and soot causing people to remain indoors and closing businesses and schools for three days.


revised 10/31/03 by Schoenherr | Local History | List of Lists