Vintage photos tell the tale of historic Southern California flood

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Every time it rains in Southern California, it can feel like the first time. But the region has weathered severe storms, and there are pictures — some of which date back a century — to prove it.

One hundred years ago, in January of 1916, the Southland was drenched with heavy rains and San Diego was the hardest hit

Coming off a drought, the city had hired self-proclaimed rainmaker Charles Hatfield, who claimed he could coax water from the skies and fill the Morena Reservoir — for a fee of $10,000.

The rains began in early January, and by the end of the month, the Southland was soaked. Miles of tracks were destroyed, and trains were stopped for 32 days. Highways and the telephone lines were cut off.

Historian Thomas W. Patterson recalled the devastation:

On the high land of San Diego itself life seemed to be perched, wet and insecure, above raging disaster. The San Diego River was a mile-wide torrent covering Mission Valley from the Kearny Mesa to the mesa of the city and sending back-waters between the jutting fingers of both. Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily. Out of the gullies from the east and south came droves of cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

The worst disaster occurred when the Lower Otay Dam failed and flooded a settlement of Japanese people, killing between 20 and 60 people.

For years afterward, it would be known as the "storm of the century" — or, as many preferred to call it, "Hatfield's flood." Although there was talk of lynching him, that didn't stop Charles Hatfield from demanding his full fee.

The city council refused to pay unless Hatfield also accepted liability for damages caused by the storm. Hatfield sued, and after years in court, the storms were ruled an act of God. Hatfield never received a penny of his promised $10,000.

Since then, Southern California has experienced several floods — in 1926, 1938, 1958 and 1969, to name a few instances — as these vintage photographs attest.

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