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Devastation of ’86 ‘catalyst’ for flood control project

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The deadliest, most devastating flood in recorded Napa history occurred 25 years ago this past week. Yet if ever a storm had a silver lining, it was this one.

Until the Flood of 1986, Napa had gone twice on record as being unwilling to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pay for flood control. In November 1976, and again in November 1977, county voters had shot down local financing plans.

In a way, voters had become complacent, said Dave Dickson, Napa County’s former community partnership manager. The last big flood had been in 1955, when Napa was only half as large. Memories had faded, he said.

The Flood of ‘86 was a reality check. “The flood was a shock and a surprise to the community. It had been well over 30 years since anything even approaching that had occurred,” Dickson said.

Today’s $430 million flood protection project likely would never have broken ground but for the flood that Presidents’ Day holiday in 1986, said Dave Finigan, Napa’s city manager at the time. “It was the catalyst,” he said.

“It energized a lot of people to work for a flood control project,” said John Lindblad, Napa’s public works director in ‘86.

Much had to occur between February, 1986 and the March election in 1998 when county voters approved Measure A, a 20-year, half-cent sales tax to pay for the local share of a federal flood project.

Community leaders had to mobilize behind the need for flood control, then push the Army Corps to throw out old plans for a concrete channel through town, recalled Angie Pieper, who was executive director of the Napa Valley Economic Development Council.

In the wake of the ’86 inundation, Pieper called a meeting of local government and business leaders to see if there was a will to revive flood control.

“Everybody had suffered in that flood,” Pieper said. “It was such a blow to business, to everybody.”

“The corps put it to us bluntly: ‘If you can get people to accept this, we’ll start planning,’” Pieper said.

The Army Corps reactivated the project in 1988, but the first results were not promising, said Heather Stanton, who would manage the local flood control district during the early years of the current flood project.

When the Army Corps presented its new plan to the City Council in the early 1990s, it was attacked as a “gulag,” she said.

“It was deep cuts and high walls all the way through downtown. It was a typical L.A. River approach,” Stanton said.

Environmental organizations ultimately prevailed on the Army Corps to throw out its old designs and start over. The “living river” concept, which restores much of the river to something resembling its historical configuration, is what voters approved in 1998.

Measure A passed with only 300 or so votes to spare, Dickson noted. Voters remembered not only the ‘86 flood, but there had been a half dozen smaller floods and close calls in the intervening years to keep alive awareness of the flood danger.

It’s hard to overstate the physical and emotional trauma that the ’86 flood inflicted on the entire Napa Valley, Dickson said. Hundreds of elderly lost their mobile homes in St. Helena, Yountville and Napa. Gyms were turned into evacuation shelters. Business ground to a halt. 

The flood had the impact of a “fist in your stomach,” Dickson said. “For years, afterward when it would rain hard, it would come back.”

Voters who went to the polls in 1998 carried that trauma in the recesses of their minds, he said.

Asked if the Flood of ‘86 was serendipitous because it resulted in today’s flood project, Stanton paused. 

It’s hard to call a flood that caused so much damage serendipitous, she said. Yet, if ever the word were to be applied to a flood, then maybe the ‘86 dunking qualified, she said.

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