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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1858- San Diego Hurricane

It is uncommon for tropical cyclones to strike the state of California. Systems that form in the eastern North Pacific usually weaken below tropical storm strength over Mexico or the colder waters associated with the California current. Only four known tropical cyclones have brought tropical storm-force winds to the southwestern coast of the United States. Researchers have discovered that a fifth tropical cyclone, a hurricane, impacted San Diego, CA, on October 2, 1858. The hurricane formed in late September 1858, in the East Pacific Ocean. Hurricanes typically track due west in this ocean basin, however, this storm moved to the north-northeast. On 2 October, it neared Southern California while weakening due to the presence of cooler waters and strong wind shear. Upon approaching San Diego, CA, by mid-day on 2 October, the hurricane took a turn for the west-northwest, just missing a direct landfall in the state. Researchers believe that the hurricane then remained offshore from San Diego through 3 October, before tracking toward the northwest.

Category 1 conditions were experienced from San Diego to Long Beach, CA, and the storm was regarded as “one of the most terrific and violent hurricanes” to strike San Diego. Heavy rain was present along with damaging about 120 km/h (75 mph) winds. City residents claimed to have never experienced such weather in that area stating “a terrific gale” had sprung up from the south-southeast and continued “with perfect fury” for about six hours. It was said to have been the “severest gale ever witnessed in San Diego”. Other locations, such as Los Angeles, also felt the effects of the hurricane, where heavy rain fell for an estimated 24 hours (although there was little wind).

As a result of the storm, property damage was great in San Diego. Many homes lost their roofs and some were completely destroyed. After the storm, it was discovered that three schooners, the Plutus, the Lovely Flora, and the X.L., had blown ashore and a recently constructed windmill had been demolished. It was feared that the hurricane had damaged the local grape crop, which was important to the area. This largely was not the case, and, in fact, farmers benefited from the heavy rain as it allowed them to produce a substantial grain crop, something they had been unsuccessful with for several years previous.

Fast Facts:

  • This hurricane is the only tropical cyclone known to produce hurricane-force winds on the California coast. Coral evidence suggests an El Nino event may have occurred that year, which would have kept ocean waters warmer than normal along the southwest U.S. coast, and thus, sustain a hurricane as far north as southern California. Historical records and modeling results suggest a similar Category 1 storm could return to the San Diego area in a couple hundred years, most likely during another El Nino event.
  • Researchers estimated that if this hurricane were to strike San Diego in modern times, $500 million (USD) in damage would result. At the time of the hurricane, San Diego was only a small settlement with a population of 4,325. Today the population of San Diego County is over 3 million.


“1858 San Diego hurricane.” Wikipedia. 2009. Web.

Chenoweth, Michael and Christopher Landsea. Presentation: “The San Diego Hurricane of October 2, 1858.” American Meteorological Society Forum: Living in the Coastal Zone, January 11, 2005.

Chenoweth, Michael and Christopher Landsea. The San Diego Hurricane of 2 October 1858. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 85(11): 1689–1697. November 2004.