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When was the last time San Diego was hit by a hurricane?

'A terrific gale' | Newspaper accounts from 1858 describe an apocryphal scene.

SAN DIEGO — As newly designated Hurricane Hilary inches up the Baja California coastline on a path toward San Diego, questions arose as to when was the last time that a hurricane made landfall in San Diego.

According to a 2004 research paper from Michael Chenoweth and Christopher Landsea posted on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the last time San Diego was hit by a hurricane was October 2, 1858.

That storm, according to the researchers, was the only tropical cyclone to produce sustained hurricane-force winds on the California coast.

In their paper, Chenoworth and Landsea looked at media reports in the then-local papers, The San Diego Herald,  and the Daily Alta California. 

In an October 13, 1858 article, the Herald reported about what was an "instant, terrific gale" that continued "with perfect fury."

"It blew with such violence, and the air was filled with such dense clouds of dust, that it was impossible to see across the Plaza. and it was with the greatest difficulty that pedestrians could walk the streets," read the Herald's report.

Added the article, "The damage to property was considerable, houses were unroofed and blown down, trees uprooted, and fences destroyed. It is said to be the severest gale ever witnessed in San Diego."

On the following day, a reporter for the Daily Alta California wrote that the hurricane was, "One of the most terrific and violent hurricanes that has ever been noticed by the inhabitants of our quiet city."

The dust from the winds conjured up scenes from northeast Africa.

Wrote the reporter, "Very heavy gusts of wind came driving madly along, completely filling the whole atmosphere with thick and impenetrable clouds of dust and sand, so much so, that one who was in the street could no more see around him than if he was surrounded by an Egyptian darkness; this continued for a considerable length of time, the violence of the wind still increasing, until about one o’clock, when it came along in a perfect hurricane, tearing down houses and everything that was in its way."

According to damage reports from the storm, the winds were estimated to be around 75 miles per hour, making the 1858 hurricane a Category 1 storm. 

Prior to Chenoworth and Landsea's 2004 paper, weather experts had questioned whether hurricanes pose any risk to southern California. Discovery of the 1858 storm answered those questions.

"The risk of a hurricane in southern California is now documented to be real," wrote the researchers before concluding, "Residents, business owners, the insurance industry, local emergency managers and decision-makers and Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) should take note of the meteorological curiosity of the 1858 San Diego hurricane and not be surprised when such an event occurs again to threaten lives and causes hundreds of millions of dollars in damage."

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