STORM WATCH: THE DAY IT RAINED WORMS

It started as a feather light trickle on Friday, April 2, 1926, and dampened Easter Sunrise services on April 4. And then a one-two punch of back-to-back tropical storms ripped through Santa Barbara county breaking all known rainfall records for the month. By Friday, April 9, six inches of rain had deluged Santa Barbara, and seven inches had ravaged Montecito. At Gibraltar Dam, 10.5 inches of rain resulted in 9,000 cubic feet of water per second pouring over the spillway, sufficient in volume to fill the lake behind the dam in less than a day.

The Honolulu Express brought torrential downpours, lightening, thunder and gale force winds throughout the County. Flooding, mudslides and bridge washouts were widespread. Crews working day and night to clear the rail tracks and the Coast Highway between Ventura and Santa Barbara could not keep up with the three-foot thick oozes of mud that devoured the rail and roadways as hillsides liquefied near the whistle stop train stations at Punta (now La Conchita) and Wave (Rincon Point).

The highway closed and 1,000 motorists were stranded in Ventura or Santa Barbara. Worse off were those who were stranded in between. Many drivers abandoned their cars and walked the railroad tracks until they could hitch a ride to a hotel. Others camped out in their automobiles as they waited for help out of the muck. Teams of horses maintained by the State Highway Commission struggled to pull motorists through the bad spots of the road.

During a midnight cloudburst on April 8, four automobiles were swept from the Rincon stretch of the highway and into the sea when a mountain of water spewing from a culvert hit them broadside. James Ross, Jr., the son of Sheriff Ross, and his companion Earl A. Newton, a Ford and Lincoln salesman with E. M. Fillmore on Olive Street, abandoned their own vehicle and swam to the rescue. Making several trips, the young men rescued the drivers and passengers of the wave tossed automobiles, including one family of five, the Napiers, who were from Pocatello, Idaho. The cars they left to the whim of the roiling sea.

Storm Damage

On April 7, the torrent at Rincon Creek broke the gas main which carried natural gas from the Ventura field to Santa Barbara and Montecito. Immediately, the old gas plant in Santa Barbara was started up and “artificial gas” was pumped into the distributing tank of the Southern Counties Gas Company. Householders were warned to dampen the air mix for this change of gas; otherwise, giant flames would erupt. Discolored water poured from the taps and officials were quick to reassure the public that it was safe to drink.

As the days of deluge progressed, paved roads became undercut and dirt roads acquired ravines. Huge boulders pounded Alameda Padre Sera. All over the county, small bridges were lost, including the bridge over Tunnel Road at the South Portal of the City Water Tunnel. The canyon waters near County Hospital absconded with seven pigs and several small buildings. Ships broke free of their moorings and those at sea could not land. The wharf lost several pilings when the Tillman barges broke loose and crashed through the pier.

The city block bordered by Canon Perdido, Quarantina, Salsipuedes and De la Guerra flooded, leaving four small-frame houses, four wagons, and one automobile standing in four feet of water. Police commandeered a skiff and rescued the residents although an ancient Chinese man named Fok Yong protested his removal loudly. It seemed this was the second time in a week he had lost a home. The first house, an old adobe on the corner of Canon Perdido and Anacapa, had been torn down. Police also ordered the evacuation of tourists from the Mountain View Auto Camp at Hollister (now De la Vina) Avenue and Alamar because Mission Creek was near to cresting.

At the earthquake-damaged Mission, the padres put out scores of tin buckets and the occasional washtub to catch the fall of rain through the leaky roof. A battery of mops was deployed to prevent damage to the parched adobe walls.

East Valley Road closed when San Ysidro Creek deposited three feet of mud, rocks and trees. Crews of men under the direction of Supervisor Thomas T. Dinsmore worked to keep the creek in its new channel, about a quarter mile west of its old location. Log jams in the creek caused by the February 11 storm forced the creek farther westward through the estate of Mrs. Elizabeth W. Randall and through Ennisbrook. Dinsmore set fire to hundreds of tree stumps which had piled up against the San Ysidro Creek Bridge on East Valley Road in an effort to clear the stream of debris. The smoky conflagration went on for days despite heavy downpours.

Worms

On Sunday, April 11, veteran mountaineer Carl Snow returned to town from his homestead on Rancheria Flats along the Santa Ynez River with an amazing story. Carl related, “Sunday night, April 4, the rain began falling in torrents. In a few hours, the entire country was covered with water. I lashed my automobile to a large sycamore tree and took my horses to high ground.”

Though the water on Monday was rushing around his cabin, the storm had slackened, and Carl believed the flood stage had reached its peak. “But on Wednesday,” he said, “the storm set in with renewed fury. Realizing that things were getting serious, I prepared for the worst, for the river was running from bank to bank and the water from the mountains poured around my cabin. Expecting to see it float away at any time, I built a shelter on the mountainside north of the cabin, under a ledge of rock.

“I had just got off the flat when a twister struck the flat and created a miniature tornado. The water on the ground and in the river was taken up in the air like chaff and in a few minutes there was a torrent of water falling.”

But it wasn’t raining cats and dogs, it was raining angle worms! “There were millions of angle worms everywhere,” Carl said.

The twister was followed by a huge cloudburst accompanied by lightening – “the great blue double-geared kind” – and thunder so loud it jarred the mountains. Carl ran for the brush through waist deep water as lightening blinded him at every turn. “The roaring stream was flooding my cabin,“ he said, “and I had to work fast to keep above the avalanche of rock and muck.”

“Chilled almost to death, I feared that my horses were surely buried under land slides. The next morning, however, I found them so cold and stiff that it was impossible for them to move. Gasoline from my automobile, poured on the brush and lighted, soon thawed them out.”

Carl’s adventures were not over, however. On Friday afternoon, Elmer Morgan and his wife staggered into Carl’s cabin, half-starved. While feeding their bees up in Bear Canyon, they had been caught by the storm when their truck broke down. They survived on honey and yucca and defied death by scaling nearly 1,000 feet of falling mountain side to reach Carl’s camp.

“I provided them with food and blankets,” Carl said, “and soon they had revived sufficiently to express the desire to swim the river, which was running from bank to bank. They desired to reach their other camp down the river, where they had provisions stored.”

On Saturday, although it took nearly three hours, Carl managed to get the Morgans and three of his horses across the swollen torrent of the river which was running eight feet deep and 400 feet wide. Foregoing the Morgan’s camp, they headed for Santa Barbara, up over the mountain via Tunnel Road.

“We reached the south portal of the city water tunnel late at night, only to discover that the bridge was out. We were too tired to build a shoo-fly around the bridge until Sunday morning,” Carl said. When the beleaguered travelers reached the city, Carl declared, “It was the closest call I have ever had.”