Storm book project now a definitive Yes!

by Joel Pomerantz

October 16th, 2010

The Thinkwalks blog is going into full swing today. At least for a time, likely many months, most content here will be related to the Storm Book I’ve begun researching.

My intent is to publish articles and a prospectus booklet, eventually extruding a book on the topic. I hope I can nudge The Great Storm and Flood from obscurity into public awareness with some serious research and writing. I consider myself lucky to have stumbled upon this incredible little-known topic. Of the professionals I recently consulted in related fields, few have been aware of the significance of the winter of 1861-62. Many of them coyly said they had heard “something about that” but few really had a clear idea that The Great Flood of California easily rivaled the Big One (1906 quake) in its impact.

Weekly update [October 10–16, 2010]

Sunday — Agitation. I’m nervous about launching into a book project, since I haven’t yet published an entire book myself. More jitterly, I haven’t yet had the chance to look into the quantity of information that may be available on my undeservedly obscure subject. Will it be enough for a serious book? I’m having some trouble setting up a database for my research notes. This is both frustrating and humiliating. The frustration is that I already have notes accumulating haphazardly. But worse: I used to be a professional database developer, and I keep finding that the new structure of FileMaker Pro stumps me. It’s a great distraction from the miserably low level of of my historical expertise—yet another concern. I’ve never even been to the California State Library’s History Room.

Monday — More frustrations with research notes database. The templates are backwards, or simply not useful. Backwards = many documents per note rather than many notes per document. Database guru Nancy Botkin encourages me to go simple, and just start a flat file of documents until I need to start detailed notes. I’m frantic to get going on topic evaluation. I had intended to decide a final “go or no” for this book project back in August. Here it is, October! I need administrative help! Luckily, a phone call to an old co-worker turned the mood. Next Wednesday, we meet. If it works out for us to collaborate, I’ll trumpet it then.

Tuesday — I’m frustrated, too, by the financial obligations involved, and my need to keep both the tours and my nascent Life History Books work going. I haven’t even had a chance to find a single client to interview for a Life History Book yet, despite Corina’s excellent set-up and gracious invitations. I vented my frustrations for more than an hour with poor Beate, but it really helped me to sort through priorities. She’s so patient with this. I looked up the ARkStorm project online and found ample reason to get in touch with the people there, at the US Geological Survey: Apparently, they’ve planned the project partly to create a new system for rating storm severity, designating the 1862 storm as the ultimate standard, set at 1,000 on the new scale they’re developing. This topic interests me greatly. I assume they are replacing the scale that measures storm severity by the average years between storms of that magnitude. That scale is becoming less useful, as extreme weather events increase. And the tropical storm scale of 1 to 5 is too blunt.

Wednesday — I awoke early at 4:30 and immediately tackled my database problems, without the former hesitation. I managed to set up my own many-to-one notes-to-documents relational file. I feel encouraged! Then I hopped a train to Sacramento for a couple days in the State Library. What a wonderful resource. A reference librarian named Karen gave me a brief but thorough introduction to the collection: photos, reading room shelves, file card system, web search, making reproductions and using their free wi-fi and free web site printing. My enthusiasm shot way up as soon as I began pursuing my main questions. Those were: What newspapers existed in California in 1862? (I found six so far.) What towns existed? (I extracted 78 towns from a complex compilation called Population History of California Places by Berlo.) Are there other photos than the two I’ve seen from the levee in Sacramento? (They have copies of ten or more!) I also found rainfall summaries and lists of newspapers to look at tomorrow.

Thursday — Up early again at Gordon’s house in Sacramento. I organized my many culled resources until the State Library opened. It was another banner day. I found a dozen more papers that existed, and a resource to find even more. Librarians had found, and held for me, a couple seriously useful bookish compilations, including a Newspaper History of the Great California Floods of 1861-62 and a book called California Storms, Floods, and Other Natural Benefits 1849–1997: A documentary by Allan Shields. There is clearly a plentitude of information, and I haven’t yet even begun to look at secondary topics. I also had a wonderful lunch with Mark Miller, a local acquaintance who showed me his house, where, he says, the sheriff lived at the time of the floods. I return to San Francisco deeply pleased.

Friday — Today’s effort, though it should be devoted to digesting the hundreds of notes and source leads from the California State Library, is instead a brief return to the California Historical Society archive on Mission Street here in San Francisco. Just in case the State Library is an anomaly, I need to experience at least one more major resource before I decide this book project is on. After my visit, I must say, yes. I have never seen two archivists’ faces light up so dramatically. Sure, I’ve found myself introducing the topic to people before. But I got the privilege of introducing two inspired people to the existence of this important event. This kind of startling interaction—which I’ve had with flood control people, geographers and historians alike—is what makes it worth my time to do this book. And, on top of that, I emerged, after only an hour, with seven leads to diaries and personal papers covering the topic (or at least the time period, in some cases), all held in their collection.

After six months of exploring haphazardly and a week of final evaluation, I’m now ready to brave the financial contortions and exhaustive effort to make this book happen. I already crave a written summary to print and hand out as the process begins. Oh, and…did I mention?…the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the storms will be upon us in a mere 14 months. Time to leap.

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