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California Coastal Storm History Part Two – Ventura County
Darryl Hatheway: AECOM, CFM, Sr. Coastal Scientist
Coastal Storm History in Ventura County
There are numerous reports of severe Pacific winter storms causing coastal damages throughout the 20th Century, including beach/bluff erosion, seawall damages, and flooding from wave overtopping.  These events are well-documented in reports by Ott Water Engineers (1984), National Research Council (1984), Gary Griggs (et al. 2005), and others.  This coastal storm history is often forgotten and provides a reminder that extreme coastal flood events have frequently occurred along the southern California coast.  This article discusses storm damages during the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño winters and the great storm of January 1988 in Ventura County, and provides a reminder of the high damage risk that the oceanfront built environment experiences in any given year.
Southern California wave climatology differs from the northern part of the state due to the more east-west shoreline orientation and protection from Point Conception and offshore Channel Islands, which reduce exposure to severe northerly and westerly storms. However, large storm events still impact this area with strong storm magnification occurring during El Niño winters when storms increase in frequency and intensity, elevating monthly mean winter significant wave heights and water levels. Additionally, El Niño storms tend to approach from the west and south which has a significant impact on shorelines that are typically protected from northwest swell due to sheltering or refraction effects on the continental shelf and Point Conception.
1982 – 1983: El Niño Event
There were several large storm events that affected Ventura County during the 1982-83 El Niño. Early winter storms initiated erosion and left the beaches narrow and vulnerable to subsequent storms in January-February 1983 (NRC 1984). El Niño storms had maximum offshore significant wave heights approaching seven meters along the California coast. In southern California, eight storms had offshore significant wave heights that exceeded three meters. Although the northern California coast experienced the strongest storms, widespread erosion and flooding also pervaded throughout the southern California (NRC 1984).

Shoreline retreat near Rincon Point exposed many homes to damage from wave action. Farther south, the access road to Emma Wood State Beach was destroyed in the winter of 1983; additional damage to the park also required revetment installation (Griggs et al. 2005). Breakwaters were damaged at Channel Islands Harbor and Port Hueneme with estimated repair costs of $3.5 million (NRC 1984). Additional damage included significant erosion in the Oxnard Shores area, causing a need for placement of emergency riprap to protect shorefront homes from direct wave impact. Several sections of the railroad and Highway 1 in this region were also undermined by waves (Griggs et al. 2005).
The Great Storm of 1988
On January 17-18, 1988, strong winds and up to 20 foot waves resulting from an intense, unpredicted “southeaster” impacted the southern California coast. Based on extreme statistics the event is believed to have been a 200-year storm, causing in excess of $28 million in damages throughout southern California (Seymour 1989); damages in Ventura were estimated to be $300,000. Highway 101 near Emma Woods State Beach was overtopped and required debris removal, causing highway closure and evacuation of campers. Extreme beach erosion occurred along near Surfer’s Point State Park and the promenade was flooded and covered with debris. Farther south, Oxnard Shores beach was also overtopped and debris removal was required throughout the area (Armstrong 1989).
1997 – 1998: El Niño Event
The 1997-1998 El Niño event, although believed to be more intense on the ENSO index scale, caused less damage to the shoreline than the 1982-1983 El Niño. This is partly due to the largest storms aligning with low periods in the tidal signal. Additionally, a much higher percentage of the shoreline had been armored following the 1982-1983 storm events, lessening the number of exposed structures (Griggs et al. 2005). Despite this lowered risk, extensive damages with an estimated valuation of $50 million were reported throughout Ventura County (Kelley 1998).
Waves overtopped the revetment in North Rincon Parkway, Faria, and Emma Wood State Beach causing significant flooding and road damage. Throughout the Oxnard Plains area, homes were damaged and sections of Highway 1 were flooded (Griggs et al. 2005). Overtopping also occurred along Surfer’s Point causing waves to exceed a revetment and flood the backshore bike path and parking lot.
Other Significant Storm Events
In addition to these historical storms, there have been a number of other events causing damages along the Ventura County coastline:
  • A large winter “atmospheric river” storm in December 1969 which originated in Hawaii (also known as a Pineapple Express storm);
  • A severe El Niño event was associated with multiple damaging storms occurring along the coast during the 1977-78 winter period;
  • The December 14, 1995 winter storm had waves 18 feet high which destroyed a 420 foot section of the Ventura Pier;
  • Flooding occurred in the Faria area and Emma Wood State Beach during the January 11, 2001 severe winter storm; and
  • A strong west swell and high tide before Christmas in December 2005 flooded portions of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Each coastal county in the CCAMP OPC study has a unique storm history due to factors such as storm climatology, offshore bathymetry, shoreline orientation, and degree of coastal development. Too often, with the passage of time, we forget our vulnerability to coastal flood hazards and our past experiences with coastal storm damage, especially due to infrequently occurring El Niño winter storms. Reminding property owners of historical flooding will help them to refocus on mitigation efforts and promote the development of flood resilient communities.

Armstrong, G. and R.E. Flick. 1989. Storm damage assessment for the January 1988 Storm along the southern California  coastline. Shore and Beach, 57, 20-22.

Griggs, G. and K. Brown 1998. Erosion and shoreline damage along the central California coast: a comparison between the

1997-98 and 1982-83 winters. Shore and Beach, 66, 18-23.

Griggs, G., K. Patsch, and L. Savoy 2005. Living with the Changing California Coast. University of California Press, 540 pp.
Kelley, D. 1998. Storm damage in county tops $50 million. Los Angeles Times. February 25, 1998.
NRC 1984. California Coastal Erosion and Storm Damage During the Winter of 1982 – 1983. National Academy Press, 74 pp.
Ott Water Engineers 1984. Northern California Coastal Flood Studies. 115 pp.

Storlazzi, C. and G. Griggs 1998. The 1997 – 1998 El Niño and erosion processes along the central coast of California. Shore

and Beach, 67, 12 – 17.

Seymour, R.J. Wave Observations in the Storm of 17-18 January 1988. Shore and Beach, 57, 10-13.
NRC 1984. California Coastal Erosion and Storm Damage During the Winter of 1982 – 1983. National Academy Press, 74 pp.

In this photo beach erosion and sand overwash along Family Beach at Point Mugu Naval Air Station (Source: Roberto Garcia, NAVAIR).
The photo below shows beach erosion at Oxnard Shores following the 1982-1983 El Nino winter storms (NRC 1984).

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