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Famous Storms of Southern California

Updated on October 10, 2014

Damage from Tropical Depression Kathleen

Damage in the desert near Ocotillo, CA from Tropical Depression Kathleen in 1976.
Damage in the desert near Ocotillo, CA from Tropical Depression Kathleen in 1976. | Source

When it rains, it pours

Many people think that southern California is always sunny and warm most of the year. And, for the most part, it is. It rarely suffers from weather extremes, at least in the coastal area. And, there aren't any hurricanes, though it does get sub-tropical weather.

Mostly, what we get here in the San Diego area is remnants of tropical weather. Only one recorded true hurricane was recorded in 1858, but at least two tropical storms and four tropical depressions have hit the area in recorded state history.

Much of the water from these storms hit the desert areas where they knocked out infrastructure and cause major damage as well as a few deaths. Desert sand is not designed to drain quickly, so when a lot of rain hits the area, it quickly floods.

Southern California

List of famous storms since the 1850s

Here is a list of some of the famous storms to hit southern California since the 1850s when it officially became a state. As of right now, it is not a comprehensive list. More data will be added later.

  • October 2, 1858 San Diego Hurricane. The only record of a hurricane hitting the west coast
  • August 12, 1878, heavy rain from a tropical storm hit the San Diego area
  • September 28, 1932 a remnant of a hurricane caused flash flooding and killed 15 people.
  • September 25, 1939, a tropical storm made landfall in Long Beach killing dozens of people who were caught off guard.
  • September 10, 1976 Tropical Depression Kathleen brought heavy rain and flooding to the desert areas east of San Diego and Coachella Valley.
  • September 27, 1997, remnants of Hurricane Nora brought severe damage not only to the southeastern area of California, but Arizona

Kathleen's track

Hurricane/Tropical Storm track.
Hurricane/Tropical Storm track. | Source

The Famous Tropical Storm Kathleen

Tropical Storm Kathleen was probably one of the most famous recent tropical cyclones to hit southern California. It started off as a normal storm off the coast of Baja California in early September 1976 and was predicted to die out as it entered colder water off the coast of California. It was even dying down in predicted fashion.

However, it took an unexpected turn towards the east, re-strengthened into a tropical storm as it drew in warm moisture from the Gulf of California. Though the bulk of the storm affected northern Baja California, the deserts east of San Diego got record rainfall, especially on Mount Laguna and San Gorgonio. Floods also affected Coachella Valley and other desert areas as well as Arizona.

At least two death were attributed to flooding and slippery roads.

There is debate as to whether or not Kathleen was a tropical storm or depression when it crossed the US/Mexico border. Some weather historians refer to Kathleen as Tropical Storm and some as Tropical Depression when referring to the storm on the US side of the border and Tropical Storm when talking about the storm south of the border.

California Tropical Storm of 1939

This storm actually hit Newport Beach in Orange County in 1939. It is said the only official tropical storm to make landfall in California in the 20th century. However, this can be debated as Kathleen if frequently reported to be a tropical storm when it crossed the border in 1976, though it dissipated later.

This storm, too, happened in September. At least 45 were killed. Most of the deaths were due to flooding and rough waters when they were caught off guard. It dumped over 5.5 inches of rain in just a few hours in the Los Angeles area and at least a foot of rain on Mount Wilson.

1939 California Tropical Storm

Path and damage of the famous 1939 tropical storm that hit southern California
Path and damage of the famous 1939 tropical storm that hit southern California | Source

"Hurricane" of 1939


Why do these storms hit in the fall?

You may have noticed that many of these storms hit in late summer or early fall, mostly in September in what is considered to be the "monsoon season". Like the midwest in the spring, fall wind and moisture currents are ripe for setting up storms in the southwest. While hurricane season is the same in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic, where the hurricane forms depends on the weather currents.

It just happens to be that September is favorable for hurricanes to set up just south of Baja California. In the north, changes to weather patterns often means that these storms are steered right into southern California or Arizona. Depending on the speed of these weather currents, the rain can be very light or heavy.

Here is a page about the Southwest Summer Monsoon put out by meteorologists from Weatherbug:

What is the Southwest Summer Monsoon?

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    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 3 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      It always amazes me how quickly mother nature can step up and make herself known, in seconds demolishing whatever she wishes.