Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
In New Mexico, 1941 was the year it never stopped raining. Or at least that’s the way it seemed.
Flooding washed out bridges and roads; destroyed homes, businesses and irrigation ditches; forced people to share refuge with venomous reptiles; and severed a gas line so that some Albuquerque residents took to cooking over backyard campfires. On the final day of the 1941 State Fair, 8,000 fans braved a cold, driving rain to watch the horses races.
And that year, 28 people died from weather-related causes, 24 of them in flooding.
In 1941, New Mexico got a statewide average of 26.25 inches of rain, about twice the normal statewide average of 13.96 inches. It was the wettest year in New Mexico history, the standard against which every other wet year in the state is measured.
“It was a remarkable year,” said Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “It is a year that will not be repeated, or maybe once every 500 years.”
On Sunday, Sept. 21, 1941, 75 years and a few days ago, a headline on the front page of the Journal trumpeted the opening of the fourth New Mexico State Fair.
“20,000 Expected to Throng Grounds as State Fair Opens,” it read.
Back then, when much more of the state was rooted in a rural lifestyle, the opening of the State Fair was an even bigger deal than it is now.
But, on this day, the fair story was dwarfed by a banner headline reading “City Left Without Gas as Flood Breaks Pipeline.” That story told about a flash flood north of Albuquerque that cut the line supplying the city with natural gas.
Another headline on the front page that day shouted “Carlsbad Menaced By Flood: Residents in Low Areas Ordered to Leave Their Houses.” Rainwater barreling out of Hackberry Draw, and McKitric and Walnut canyons rumbled into south Carlsbad, forcing 1,000 residents to evacuate their homes.
Intrigued by the phenomenal weather year, Albuquerque native Sharon Sullivan started work on an honors thesis about 1941’s abnormal precipitation levels while she was an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico in 2013.
“There were deaths, a lot of property damage and snowfall in high amounts in some places,” Sullivan, now a graduate student in atmospheric science at the University of Wyoming, said during a phone interview. “September is the most variable month. It can be exceptionally dry, but also very wet. September 1941 is the wettest September on record” in New Mexico.
That September, the state got 5.48 inches of rain, 3.81 inches more than normal for that month. May was also exceptionally wet that year, soaking up 3.71 inches, or 2.66 inches more than normal.
“May 1941 was easily the wettest May (in state history),” Jones said. “March 1941 was the second-wettest March on record, with a statewide average of 2.20 inches. The wettest March was 1905 with 2.21 inches. Close.”
Actually, nine months got better-than-average rainfall in New Mexico in 1941. November was the only month that year that got less than normal rainfall totals. August and December were about average.
According to a Journal story, heavy rains and spring runoff caused Elephant Butte Reservoir to fill up to the spillway – at total of 1.83 million acre-feet of water – on June 29, 1941, the first time that had happened since the reservoir was built in 1916.
Flooding was the worst in May and September. Much of the state suffered washed out bridges and roads, ruined crops and damaged irrigation ditches. In her thesis, Sullivan writes that property damage that year was estimated at $3.5 million, which would be about $55 million in today’s dollars.
Most of the 24 people who died in floods lost their lives in the Carlsbad area of southeast New Mexico or along the Gila River in the southwest part of the state. The May 25 Journal reported “Carlsbad Counts 5 Flood Dead; 300 Homes wrecked.” A headline in the Sept. 30 Journal read “Two Drown in Gila Flooding; Water Rises in Roswell.”
Death totals in both areas would rise as bodies were recovered. Every street in Roswell was washed away and many people, such as Mrs. Chase McReynolds, a member of a ranching family in Redrock in southwest New Mexico, experienced harrowing situations.
According to a story in the Oct. 1 Journal, floodwaters from the Gila River forced McReynolds to climb into a tree, which she shared for 12 hours with three rattlesnakes. She said the snakes were in the tree before she was.
“She broke off a branch and knocked two of the snakes into the water when they coiled and struck at her,” the story read. “They promptly climbed back into the tree.”
McReynolds’ husband rescued her when he returned to the ranch. The story does not report what happened to the snakes.
So what was it about 1941 that had usually arid New Mexico as soggy as an English marsh?
Jones and Sullivan agree that finding that answer was a challenge because weather-gathering methods were not as extensive or sophisticated then as they are now.
“We did not have nearly as many weather stations in New Mexico in 1941,” Jones said. “We have about 200 around the state now, but maybe half as many back then. The bigger the sample, the more confident you are going to be in your results.”
Sullivan said upper-air data was not collected in 1941.
“So a determination of anomalous patterns was difficult,” Sullivan said. “But it was kind of fun trying to look at everything that was available. Old records at the National Weather Service in Albuquerque had monthly summaries by farmers and weather observers.”
What Sullivan determined was that there was no single cause for the highly abnormal weather. She said a teaming up of El Niño, a moisture-dense weather pattern created by warmer than usual sea-surface temperatures in the southern Pacific, and Pacific Decatel Oscillation (PDO), a similar pattern caused by warm sea-surface temperatures farther north in the Pacific, played a role in New Mexico’s unusually wet year.
“It was a combination of PDO and El Niño, and also multiple independent high-precipitation storm events in the region and tropical storm remnants,” she said. “We are unlikely to see storm events like we saw in 1941 again.”
As Sullivan notes in her thesis: “The year 1941 will forever stand out as a significant event in the climatological history for New Mexico.”