USGS - science for a changing world

Kansas Water Science Center

Water-Supply Paper 2502

Summary of Significant Floods in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, 1970 Through 1989

Summary of Significant Floods, 1970 Through 1989, by Year

This section includes brief descriptions of selected signficant interstate and intra-state floods in yearly accounts. Floods described in this section were those with excessive loss of life, excessive damage, extreme discharge or gage height, or those regional in extent. References are provided for these as well as other selected significant floods that occurred during the year. Figures 3-22 in this section depict widespread regional flooding by giving the percentage of streamflow-gaging stations in each State or territory recording greater than the approximate 20-year recurrence-interval flooding during the calendar year.


The first significant flooding of 1986 occurred in northern and central California and western Nevada as a result of rainstorms beginning February 11 and continuing through February 24 (fig. 19). The storms produced widespread flooding and landslides. Record flooding occurred in three streams that drain to the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area. Large maximum discharges also occurred in the Feather and American River Basins in central California. Lake Tahoe rose 6 in/d as a result of high inflow. In California and Nevada the floods caused 14 deaths and $379 million in damages (Paulson and others, 1991).

Flooding in South Dakota that began early in March was due to near-normal winter snowfall coupled with carryover moisture from the previous year, as fall precipitation was 150 to 200 percent of normal over most of the State. The third week in March, a wet spring storm produced precipitation that augmented the flooding. This was followed by the wettest April on record for South Dakota (the 5.13-in. precipitation total for April 1986 far surpassed the next largest 3.87-in. total received in 1941). Thunderstorm activity continued through May, June, and July, keeping rivers and streams at high stages. An unusually wet September (four times the usual rain for the area) again produced flooding in southeastern South Dakota and caused the highest stages of the year on the lower Vermillion and Big Sioux Rivers.

Intense rains, producing 8 in. in 2 hours, fell over the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area on May 30 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1986). The rains caused severe flash floods in some Pittsburgh suburbs. The severity of the floods was increased by the area's high relief and many paved surfaces. The maximum discharge of Little Pine Creek near Etna (station 03049800, table 39), had a recurrence interval greater than 100 years.

Several intense thunderstorm systems moved through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas during the last week of May and the first week of June. On May 24, severe storms caused localized flood damage in the extreme northeastern corner of Arkansas. The San Antonio, Texas, area experienced recurring flash floods from thunderstorms from May 25 through June 4. Hurricane Bonnie made landfall at the Louisiana-Texas border on June 26, causing high storm surges and riverine flooding due to excessive rainfall.

Record snowmelt caused flooding along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains from southwestern Montana to southern Wyoming during June. The maximum discharge of the Madison River near West Yellowstone, Montana (station 06037500, table 27), was the highest since records began in 1913 and had a recurrence interval greater than 100 years. Northern Utah also had flooding due to the snowmelt. Early in June, the Great Salt Lake reached its highest level in nearly 140 years of record.

Several severe thunderstorms occurred in Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas from June 29 to July 8. The rains caused flash flooding in west-central Iowa. The Blue River and its tributaries, located in southern Nebraska and northern Kansas, had considerable flooding and exceeded flood stages by as much as 12 ft. Severe thunderstorms occurred in northeastern Kansas on July 6 and 7, produced about 10 in. of rain in 24 hours (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1986), and resulted in significant flash flooding.

A severe thunderstorm hit the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area on August 6 causing major flash floods along the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. Rainfall amounts for the 24-hour period totalled almost 7 in. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1986). During the most intense period of rainfall, 1.10 in. fell in 5 minutes. On the Menomonee River, the recurrence interval for the discharge was 40 to 50 years. Property damage totalled $30 million (Wisconsin Department of National Resources, 1986; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1987).

Recurring thunderstorms caused record-breaking rainfalls and floods during September in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. Severe floods occurred September 10-15 in eastern Wisconsin and across the central part of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin were affected by floods from September 20 through September 22. Flash floods occurred September 25-28 in the Des Plaines River Basin in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. The Mississippi River was above flood stage from Wisconsin to southern Missouri as a result of excessive rainfall in the upper basin.

The South-Central States were affected by excessive rains and flooding between September 26 and October 5. The rains were the result of a nearly stationary front that extended from the Texas Panhandle, through Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, and into central Missouri. The precipitation from the front was augmented as the remnants of Hurricane Paine from the Pacific Ocean moved northeastward along the frontal boundary on October 2 and 3. Hardest hit by the flooding were areas of north-central Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, which received more than 20 in. of rain during the 8-day period (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1986). Severe floods also occurred in the Osage and Arkansas River Basins of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. Many streams in Oklahoma had maximum discharges with recurrence intervals of 50 to greater than 100 years, and many reservoirs were filled almost to capacity. The Marais des Cygnes and the Marmaton Rivers in Kansas had extremely high stages. Extensive flooding also occurred across much of Missouri as several streams in the Osage River Basin reached maximum flows that were greater than the 100-year recurrence interval. The high flow of the Missouri River, combined with the already high flow in the Mississippi River, produced the fifth highest stage of record for the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

Selected References for 1986

Balding, G.O., and Ishii, A.L., 1993, Floods of Septem-ber 26-October 4, 1986, and August 14-17, 1987, in Illinois: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 92-4149, 105 p.

Blodgett, J.C., and Lucas, J.B., 1988, Profile of Sacramento River, Freeport to Verona, California, flood of February 1986: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 88-82, 16 p.

California Department of Water Resources, 1988, California highwater 1985-86: California Department of Water Resources Bulletin 69-86, 107 p.

Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1986a, Interagency hazard mitigation report for Michigan: Chicago, Illinois, October 14, 1986, 28 p.

____1986b, Regional disaster summary, Michigan major disaster request, September 18, 1986: 8 p.

____1986c, Interagency hazard mitigation report: FEMA-782-DR-AK, Alaska, 40 p.

Hauth, L.D., Walters, D.M., Coffey, T.E., and White, D.K., 1989, Water resources data, Oklahoma, water year 1987: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Data Report OK-87-1, 324 p.

Hershfield, D.M., 1961, Rainfall frequency atlas of the United States: U.S. Department of Commerce, Weather Bureau Technical Paper 40, 115 p.

Jones, S.H., and Zenone, Chester, 1988, Flood of October 1986 at Seward, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 87-4278, 43 p.

Lamke, R.D., and Bigelow, B.B., 1988, Floods of October 1986 in south-central Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 87-391 (revised 1988), 31 p.

Mayo, L.R., 1988, Hubbard Glacier near Yukutat, Alaska-the ice damming breakout of Russell Fiord/Lake, 1986, in National water summary, 1986, hydrologic events and ground-water quality: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2325, p. 42-49.

Miller, J.B., and Blumer, Stephen, 1988, Flood of September 10 to 15, 1986, across the central Lower Peninsula of Michigan: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2325, p. 64-65.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 1986a, Climatological data (by State): Ashville, North Carolina, National Climatic Data Center, (various months).

____1986b, Natural disaster survey report, central region floods of September/October, 1986: Kansas City, Missouri, National Weather Service, 140 p.

Paulson, R.W., Chase, E.B., Roberts, R.S., and Moody, D.W., compilers, 1991, National water summary, 1988-89-Hydrologic events and floods and droughts: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 2375, 591 p.

Seitz, H.R., Thomas, D.S., and Tomlinson, Bud, 1986, The storage and release of water from a large glacier-dammed lake-Russell Lake near Yakutat, Alaska, 1986: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 86-545, 10 p.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, 1986, Major storm event causes flooding and local storm water drainage problems in southeastern Wisconsin: Madison, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission Newsletter, v. 26, no. 6, 19 p.

Teets, Bob, and Young, Shelby, 1986, River of fears-the Great California Flood of 1986: Terra Alta, West Virginia, C.R. Publ., Inc., 128 p.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1987a, Annual flood damage report, fiscal year 1986: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Report DAEN-CWH-W, 14 p.

____1987b, Report on the February 1986 floods, northern California and northwestern Nevada: Sacramento District, U.S. Army Post Flood Report, 86 p., 7 pl.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 1986, Interagency hazard mitigation report: Federal Emergency Management Agency 770-DR-WI, 20 p.

Top of Page || Contents || Significant Floods, by Year || Significant Floods, by State or Territory || Figures || Tables || Glossary || Conversion Factors