Christmas Flood of 1955: "Storm of Century"
A vigorous jet stream picked up moisture from Hawaii and generated a "Pineapple Express." A series of storms belted the mountains. Ten to 13 inches of precipitation fell in one 3-day period. Balmy temperatures raised the snow level to 9,000 feet as the incessant rain saturated the ground and melted much of the region's promising, 3-foot snow pack.
On December 21,1955, after the first five days of wet weather, officials were keeping a close eye on the rising Truckee River, but they stated there was no cause for alarm. Even though steady rain continued to soak the watershed, the weather bureau reported "no menacing storms appear on the weather maps and that a series of storms appears unlikely at this time."
Other local experts in the Soil Conservation Service, U.S. Forest Service, and local water districts also saw no immediate danger. Despite this optimistic outlook, the Reno business community remembered the damaging flood from just five years before (Thanksgiving 1950) and swung into action, swearing that this time it would be different.
Reno City Manager, Ira E. Gunn, ordered 30,000 burlap sacks flown in from McClellan airfield near Sacramento. The sacks were quickly filled by volunteers and the National Guard troops and the sacks were stacked along the riverbanks. Walls of sandbags were piled in store entrances, holiday window displays were pulled down, and basement merchandise was moved to higher floors.
Department stores and the Hermann & Wilson car dealership near the river moved all stock and cars out from river-level showrooms. Contractors supplied large construction cranes that were used by public works people to pull logjams and debris away from each of the city's bridges. Parking meters were removed from the five downtown bridges. The community prepared for a fight and not a moment too soon.
On the evening of December 22, the weather service corrected its earlier forecast and alerted the media that a very intense storm was on the way. Two days before Christmas the bottom fell out of the clouds. More than two inches of rain fell on Reno in 24 hours; more than five inches drenched the upper Truckee watershed. Blue Canyon recorded a new 24-hour record with 9.31 inches, beating the old record of 8.66 inches set during the 1950 flood.
Sticky, wet snow in the high country pulled down power lines and severed all direct communication between western Nevada and California. Nearly every power plant and bridge on the Truckee River upstream from Reno was heavily damaged or destroyed.
The raging torrent jammed massive logs against bridge supports and sent a wall of water rushing into Reno's downtown district. Many homes and buildings built within the river's floodplain were swamped. Residents were forced to flee. Carefully wrapped Christmas gifts were placed high in tree branches for safety.
The water transformed Reno's Municipal Airport into a lake 4-feet deep; the airport was shut for three days. Giant boulders crashed down onto Highway 40 east of Truckee. Some boulders were so big that had to be drilled, then dynamited, before bulldozers could push the debris aside. Every highway north, south, east and west out of Reno was closed.
At the Stead Air Base, all Christmas furloughs were cancelled and hundreds of airmen were deployed to Reno with radios, jeeps, and trucks. They joined National Guard troops in sandbagging and policing the streets.
Christmas Eve 1955
Finally, on December 24, cold air from the Gulf of Alaska turned the rain to snow and the Truckee began to recede. Overnight swirling flakes descended on Reno's flood-ravaged scene, covering everything with a beautiful mantle of white. Reno residents awoke to their first white Christmas in years. The battle was over.
Only one fatality was reported in Nevada, but California suffered 48 deaths due to the flood, which caused $155 million in property damage in western Nevada and California (equivalent to nearly $1 billion today). President Dwight Eisenhower declared the affected regions federal disaster areas.
For skiers, the fresh snow on Christmas day transformed the battered ski slopes into winter wonderlands of powder. From Sugar Bowl Ski Resort came the most impressive statistic of all. Resort Manager, Walter Haug, said, "Every reservation made for the holiday week was kept despite the storm, including many visitors from Southern California." Some forces of nature you just can't stop.
Mark McLaughlin is a weather historian and writer who lives on the North Shore. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.