Tormenta’d – The Worst Storms in Los Cabos History

What’s the scariest day in Los Cabos? No, it’s not Halloween, or Día de Muertos either. The real answer is September 14. That’s the day the two worst storms in Los Cabos history ravaged the area. To be fair, they happened 75 years apart. Not too many people are old enough to remember La Inundación de 1939. But there are lots of people, myself included, who can speak to the unforgettable nature of Hurricane Odile. Odile wasn’t just a storm, it was a reckoning … and its devastation extended well beyond mere property damage. 

September is a time when storms are very much on the mind of all Cabeños. Blessed with wonderful weather for most of the year, September is the region’s most humid, rainy, and uncomfortable month by far. It’s also the heart of the slow season, contributing to residents’ general sense of malaise. In a place where beachgoing and bar-crawling have been elevated to the status of fine arts, the most popular September pastimes in Los Cabos may be adjusting the air-conditioner, and checking the latest Eastern Pacific updates on the National Hurricane Center’s website.  

The latter is an anxiety provoking exercise, of course, which is why I waited until the end of the month to publish this remembrance of storms past. Who can concentrate on what happened years ago when some new storm may be whipping up fresh dangers? 

Now that the September threat is banished for another season, however, we can relax enough to consider things from a more historical perspective. Older residents will remember several of these storms. Perhaps thinking of them will bring back bad memories – tragedy and loss are a hurricane’s constant companions – but positive emotions may also be evoked. We survived these storms, after all. Meaning, we learned things about ourselves and our neighbors in the process. For all of the madness of Hurricane Odile, for example, it’s inarguable that it brought many neighbors and communities closer together.

Other storms belong to the distant past. Either they occurred before we were born, or before we made Los Cabos our home. These are snapshot glimpses of bygone eras. It’s tempting to think of them as simpler times, until you remember the global conflicts (like World War II, for instance) that were taking place contemporaneously. Old photos of hurricanes often seem to share a distressing sameness. The storm itself is represented by the fronds of palm trees whipping in the wind, while the aftermath is symbolized by a chaotic devastation in which everything is blown to hell and gone. But each storm was a one-of-a-kind event, bringing its own special strain of calamity and misadventure.

If you love Los Cabos, you should be interested in how it evolved into the place it is today, and curious about the people whose courage in the face of adversity helped to shape its past, present, and future. 

With that in mind, here’s a look back at seven of the worst storms in Los Cabos history. The criteria for inclusion was not necessarily the strength of the storm – although three of the storms discussed below reached Category 4, and another Category 3 – but rather the most potent combination of strength, civil disruption, and destructive power.

Widespread flooding distinguished one of the most worst storms in Los Cabos history, La Inundación de 1939. Photo credit: Archivo Historico Baja California Sur.

La Inundación de 1939 – September 14, 1939

The U.S. pioneered the naming of tropical storms in the early 1950s, as a way of lessening confusion when two or more were active at the same time. So there’s no name by which to personalize what was inarguably one of the worst storms in Los Cabos history, nor is there much reliable information about the nature of the storm, or its wind speeds. What we do know is that it knocked down every house in Cabo San Lucas. That alone qualifies it for this list. 

“1907, 1918, oh much suffering; another one in 1927, many animals and fruit trees lost,” recalled local historian and professor Fernando Cota in C.M. Mayo’s Miraculous Air.  “And then there was the chubasco of 1939 … Some people rode it on horseback from Cabo San Lucas – it was impossible to cross El Tule in an automobile – and they told me when they passed by the school:  Cabo San Lucas is gone! So we went there on horses. We sent some mules across El Tule first because they are more surefooted, and if they can cross, the horses follow. We rode and walked through the night and we arrived at sun-up. From the sea to the foothills of the sierra there was nothing but broken pieces of cardón cactus. There were no references, everything had disappeared.

“Not many died, only five, because the chubasco came down in the daytime. Had it been at night, that would have been different. But they lost everything, their clothes, their dishes, their beds. Forty families! The Governor, Lt. Col. Rafael M. Pedrajo, he delivered the material for 40 houses! I don’t know how he did it. The floors and walls were of wood, the roofs of corrugated iron. For 40 families! Incredible, such a work. They should put his name on a street, a monument, something.”

“They” haven’t, but it’s deserved. Regional politicians have rarely, if ever, displayed this level of competence.

Hurricane Liza – Category 4 – September 30, 1976

Liza spared Cabo San Lucas, but devastated La Paz. In fact, there’s little doubt this is the worst storm ever to hit Baja California Sur’s capital city. A category 4 storm at her peak, Liza’s winds were in the 100 mph range when she reached La Paz on the evening of September 30, 1976. 

It wasn’t the wind, however, but rain that did the most damage. Torrential rains caused a 30 foot-high dam to burst, sending a deluge of water towards the city that overwhelmed everyone and everything in its path. The coursing water and resulting mudslides left about 40,000 people homeless, 20,000 of them in La Paz proper. For some context, the city’s population at the time was 85,000, which means an astonishing 23% of residents were homeless as a result of the storm. 

Many others weren’t even that lucky. Maria Faustina Wilkes Ritchie, in her book El San Lucas que yo conocí, recalled (in translation): “Then came the sad dawn of the city. There were corpses everywhere, without any identification, with no one to claim the bodies.” 

As is often the case with hurricanes, conditions were exacerbated by the fact that there was no electricity, no fresh water, gasoline, or telephone service. So in order to avoid a health crisis, city authorities ordered the bodies buried in mass graves in the Panteón de Los Sanjuanes. 

The combined deaths from Liza are now estimated at 1,263. In human costs, this is the worst disaster in the region’s history. 

The eye of Hurricane Paul as it sighted in on Los Cabos. Photo credit: public domain.

Hurricane Paul – Category 2 – September 29, 1982 

Hurricane Paul is also remembered as a historically deadly storm, although fortunately for Los Cabos, its worst effects were elsewhere. The storm formed off the coast of Central America, as most do in the Eastern Pacific, and it actually made an initial landfall in Central America – killing 2,000 and doing massive damage in El Salvador and Guatemala – before raging up through the Pacific Ocean and delivering a left cross to Los Cabos. 

Category 2 winds and gusts as high as 120 mph accompanied Paul’s landfall in Baja California Sur. Paul left 9,000 homeless amid widespread damage in San José del Cabo, before making his way up to La Paz. Some 3,000 in the capital city were evacuated from low-lying areas in preparation, and a reported 85 homes ended up sustaining significant damage, as telephone lines were downed, knocking out communication between San José and La Paz. 

Perhaps as a belated response from Liza six yeras earlier, both Army and Navy units in the area were on high alert. Luckily, however, no deaths were reported from Paul’s sojourn in Baja California Sur. 

Kiko’s inside-out path is one of the most unusual in Los Cabos’ hurricane history. Photo credit: public domain

Hurricane Kiko – Category 3 – August 26, 1989

Only two storms in Los Cabos history – Olivia in 1967, and Kiko in 1989 – made landfall by means of an inside-out track that saw them enter from the Sea of Cortés side, only to rampage across the peninsula and exit by way of the Pacific Ocean. As a consequence, Kiko was one of the rare hurricanes to do its most significant damage along the East Cape and its environs, slamming into La Ribera, Santiago, Miraflores, and Caduaño before crossing the Sierra de la Laguna to the Pacific side.

Kiko’s winds were 115 mph when he made landfall at Punta Arena, just south of La Ribera, and it was this area that took the brunt of Los Cabos’ nearly 12 inches of rain from the storm. An estimated 20 homes were destroyed in the process, and as usual, power was knocked out, with numerous trees and telephone lines knocked down.

Cabo San Lucas, which was spared the worst of the storm’s damage, nonetheless saw a loss of electricity, fresh water, and communications, leading residents and tourists alike to gather at a new bar that had just opened and had generator power. Its name? El Squid Roe. Ice for the drinks, meanwhile, was shipped in by boats.

Hurricane Juliette brought unprecedented levels of rain to Los Cabos. Photo credit: public domain

Hurricane Juliette – Category 4 – September 28, 2001

Hurricane Juliette packed a historically powerful punch. In terms of barometric pressure – which typically drops in inverse proportion to a storm’s growing strength, and is thus a useful comparison tool – she trails only Odile as the strongest Los Cabos storm of all-time. Juliette also trails only Odile in terms of property damage, accounting for $400 million. Taking into effect the inflation of the past 20 years, Juliette is probably closer to Odile’s estimated $1.25 billion in damages than the numbers indicate.

Why so much damage? There is one area where Juliette stands alone, with no comparison to any other storm, including Odile: rain. No storm in the history of México has ever been “wetter.” The scarcely believable 39+ inches of rain Juliette dropped on Caduaño – yes, more than three feet of rain – remains the highest total ever recorded on the Baja California peninsula. Caduaño took the brunt, but a look at the accompanying chart will show how much of Los Cabos was inundated by rain from Juliette.

The combination of Juliette’s slow moving progress and torrential rains predictably resulted in flooding and massive widespread damage. Despite the fact that Juliette was slowing down when she passed just west of Cabo San Lucas – her peak 145 mph winds had decreased to about 90 – news agency Notimex correctly termed it a “clobbering.” The town was isolated from the outside world for days due to lost power and communications. It was a situation that would be repeated to an even greater degree in the wake of Odile.

Quite simply, the worst storm ever to hit Los Cabos. Odile’s destructive power is evident in this photo. Photo credit: Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana

Hurricane Odile – Category 4 – September 14, 2014

Hurricane Norbert the week before failed to deliver on its expected damages. Odile, by contrast, delivered on just about every level of devastation imaginable. Winds were 125 mph, with gusts blowing even harder, when the storm made landfall near Cabo San Lucas. Odile unleashed much of her wanton destruction on the Tourist Corridor and San José del Cabo, where many hotels and resorts – among other structures – were left in ruins.

Cabo San Lucas certainly suffered too. Watching the hurricane from a bar on Marina Blvd. I saw a car rolling over and over all the way down the street, pushed only by wind; and shortly afterwards a string of windows exploding from the wind’s relentless force. The sound is what I’ll always remember, however, a haunting, unholy keening sound that I inevitably start hearing again – like a dog whistle – whenever a problematic storm is tracking towards Los Cabos.

Odile remains the single worst storm in Los Cabos history. No, she didn’t bring much rain (only 4 to 8 inches), but the wind was category 4, the damages well in excess of one billion dollars. Then there was the aftermath, which was laughably mismanaged by incompetent local officials, although no one here at the time found it funny, as it resulted in looting, robbing, and a host of other problems. 

Whether you believe what was alleged – the municipal president being on an unauthorized vacation in Las Vegas, a prominent law enforcement official caught red-handed with a house full of stolen televisions, etc. – the result was a complete breakdown of law and order, and about four days worth of utter chaos. 

Robbers and looters ran roughshod, to the point that many communities banded together in self-defense. The situation was made worse by the fact that Odile occurred just before México’s Independence Day. The army showed up four days after the storm, and civil order was quickly reestablished, although of course there was still no electricity – power was knocked out clear to La Paz – or any of the other niceties we associate with modernity. The heroes ended up being imported CFE workers, who reestablished power for most within one to two weeks. Not all, however. Some remained without power for a month or more.

Tropical Storm Lidia – September 1, 2017

How can a storm whose winds didn’t even reach hurricane status do this much damage? Wind speeds for Lidia, after all, topped out at only about 65 mph. The answer is rain. Lots and lots of rain. I could’t find any information on the duration of rain for Lidia, but as someone who had a leaky roof at the time, it felt like the rain went on forever.

We do know how much rain Lidia brought, however. San José del Cabo got 12 inches, and the Sierra de la Laguna nearly 19 inches. However much it was, it was enough to cause flooding. Cabo San Lucas always floods, of course, but this instance was particularly bad. The worst property damage, meanwhile, occurred just outside Cabo San Lucas in the Tourist Corridor. In total, damage was estimated at $123 million dollars.

Lidia had her tragic side as well. Five deaths were attributed to the storm in Los Cabos, two via electrocution, and two others by drowning in flooded areas. It wasn’t a hurricane, but Lidia definitely qualified as one of the worst storms in Los Cabos history, and she will be remembered for a very long time. 

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Chris Sands – Writer  and Michael Mattos


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