Baja Hurricanes

La Paz

The Baja Peninsula is the third-longest globally, stretching 747 miles from the border at Tijuana to Land’s End at Cabo San Lucas. Drive the Transpeninsular Highway though and you will log closer to 1061 miles.[1] The new road, completed in 1973, created a demand for cheap labor in tourism and agriculture. People from the mainland came to La Paz seeking better-paying jobs and a safe place to live. But many could only afford to put up tar paper shacks on the banks and dry streambeds of arroyos on the southwest edge of town.

Earlier settlers had built homes on a web of north-south running arroyos in La Paz that were sometimes dry for several years at a time. These arroyos secos were eventually filled in, paved over, and served as the main streets of the central downtown area. During a downpour, they often flood.

In 1973, engineers built an earth-and-rock levee along El Cajoncito, the big arroyo between the city and the mountains to the south. The levee gave the migrants who had constructed shelters below it an illusion of safety.

El Cajoncito carries runoff from the Sierra Cacachilas, the rugged mountain range between the Bay of La Ventana and La Paz. The arroyo begins near Rancho La Huerta, just a short hike off Highway 286, connecting Los Planes and La Paz. A few miles closer to the city, it widens and goes by the gap between the landmark hills above the town and continues around the city’s western outskirts before entering the Bay. In 1976, El Cajoncito and its tributaries had felt no more than a drizzle of rain from the storms that passed nearby.


The Baja Peninsula hurricane season stretches from June through October, with the vast majority of the storms occurring in September. The first tropical wave of the 1976 hurricane season arrived off the coast of Central America at the beginning of June. It had formed in late May over the Sahara Desert. Prevailing winds carried the wave across the Atlantic, where it spawned thunderstorms and grew in size. It crossed Central America and slowed to a crawl over the Pacific Ocean. Earth’s rotation turned the thunderstorms into the first tropical depression of the new Eastern Pacific hurricane season, but it failed to reach tropical-storm strength.

The following six Sahara visitors went on to become hurricanes that headed harmlessly out to sea. In early September 1976, Hurricane Kathleen traveled up the Pacific Coast of Baja. It dumped a surprising 6 inches of rain on San Antonio and El Triunfo. La Paz authorities warned people in the arroyos to leave their huts and find shelter in town. But the hurricane only brought light showers. 


On September 25, 1976, tropical depression 17 formed, turned to the north on the 26th, and was named Tropical Storm Liza on the 27th. Liza moved at a snail’s pace, sucking up energy from warmer water, and reached hurricane force, 79 mph, on September 28. After the false alarm created by Kathleen, people didn’t pay much attention to the news about Liza. In Southern California, crooner Bing Crosby confirmed his reservations to fly to La Paz on September 30. He planned to drive out to his home at Rancho Las Cruces on the Sea of Cortez for a week of dove shooting with friends.

Rancho Las Cruces


Arturo Picos got ready to leave for work at 7 am Thursday, September 30. He said goodbye to his wife Alicia and their two small sons. At the bottling plant, he loaded his truck and set out on his La Paz milk-delivery route. [2]

A bright, friendly, hardworking man, Arturo had overcome great adversity. Born in 1946 in Coyotitán, 60 kilometers north of Mazatlan, he grew up in poverty with his two brothers and a sister. Their mother had abandoned the family while the four siblings were still young children. Arturo’s father took them to live with a brother in a small house in Culiacán, a large city almost 100 miles to the north on the confluence of the Humaya and Tamazula rivers.

Arturo’s father acquired a lot, and they built their own house, a small structure of plywood and tar paper with a dirt floor where the family lived for several years. Arturo remembers that they often had no food in their home:

When my father’s job required traveling, he left us to fend for ourselves. We often ran out of food. We scavenged for scrap lumber and hardware and built a wheelbarrow. We went to the Garamendi market an hour’s walk away in the center of town, taking turns pushing the wheelbarrow, often with my sister riding inside. The food vendors threw bruised produce they couldn’t sell into trash bins behind the stalls. We loaded what was still useable into the wheelbarrow and pushed it back to our home.

After washing the produce, we kept what we needed for the next few days and sold the rest. We invested some of the money in pastries and sold what we could to our neighbors.

When work took their father to another distant town, he had to sell the house. Arturo’s sister went to live with an aunt. “We were just youngsters,” Arturo recalls, “but my brothers and I were left to live on the streets.”

We earned a small amount of money selling newspapers for El Diario de Culiacán. At night we slept at the entrance to the newspaper building. We worked hard to do a good job and often ran errands for the owner. He grew to trust us and let us sleep inside the building. We spread cardboard on the floor of the press room for a bed. If the weather turned cold, we pulled out large wooden storage drawers and climbed inside, covering ourselves with old newspapers. Sometimes the owner invited us to his house for a meal of leftovers. We bathed and washed our clothes in the Rio Tamazul, behind the newspaper building. Somehow, we managed to attend school regularly.

In his early teens, Arturo went to visit an uncle in Mexicali. After working at several jobs, Arturo settled on one in a small family grocery store. He worked hard and enjoyed greeting customers and asking about their needs. Alicia, the owner’s vivacious daughter, also worked in the grocery store. She always had a smile for Arturo. They fell in love, and in 1969, Arturo and Alicia were married. In 1971 they moved to La Paz, where Arturo’s brothers now lived. One weekend, looking for a new place to fish, Arturo and Alicia drove out the bumpy dirt road to El Sargento. After that trip, they talked about someday retiring in this beautiful place overlooking La Bahía de La Ventana.

Old El Sargento Highway Sign
Courtesy of Sharon Bishop

Don Arturo had finished Thursday’s milk run before noon. He was helping service the trucks when newscasters announced that strong winds and rain from Hurricane Liza, passing up the center of the Gulf, could reach La Paz soon after midnight. His boss gave employees the rest of the day off. Arturo bought a few supplies and headed for his home below El Cajoncito. Light rain started to fall.

Most people living on or near arroyos on the edge of town did not have radios or TV, so the government sent trucks with public address systems to urge them to go immediately to storm shelters. Some stayed to protect their belongings, and others had no means of transportation. Perhaps most just hoped that the levee would protect them from flooding as city officials had always assured the public.            

Torrential rains fell in the mountain ranges of Las Cacachilas. Where El Cajoncito passed the upper regions of the city, water began rising, quickly filling the Llano Laguna flood plain. Though its center was over 50 miles away in the Sea of Cortez, Liza was already lashing La Paz with hurricane-force winds and rain hours earlier than expected. Gusts blew metal roofs off houses and yanked trees from the rain-soaked ground,  downing power lines. Twenty-two inches of rain fell on San Antonio and El Triunfo in just a few hours, probably more in the Cacachilas closer to the monster’s eye.

Arturo’s modest home began to shake and shudder, unlike any storm they had gone through in the past. He decided it was time to load their pickup and head for a friend’s house. When he entered a flooded intersection, water swamped the vehicle, and the motor died. Arturo and Alicia got out and tried to push the pickup to higher ground but could not move it.

Then I spotted a taxi and waved the driver to a stop,” Arturo recalls. “When I asked the driver if he would take us downtown, he replied he had to go help his family and took off. Fortunately for me, the taxi plunged into deeper water and got stuck. The taxi driver yelled, ‘help me get out of the water, and I’ll take you where you want to go.’ We pushed, but the taxi did not budge. Two guys passing by came to our rescue, and together we got the cab out of the flooded intersection. When the driver reneged and tried to flee, I grabbed him by the collar and held on until he agreed to the deal we had made. I put our older son in the back seat and then went back to the pickup to get Luís and Alicia. As we headed back to the taxi, it took off.

We ran to catch up, but it was futile. The taxi was gone with our son. We waved at people passing for help, but they were too eager to get home to stop. Suddenly our ride reappeared. The driver thought we had all gotten in the back seat. When he asked where we wanted to go and got no answer, he found his only passenger was a frightened young boy. We all boarded and finally made it to the house of our friend.

Leaving his family secure, Arturo headed back to protect his house from thieves. After walking ten blocks, he regretted deciding to go back. Driving rain made it next to impossible to see, and power lines fell on him. He fell into a hole up to his waist in water. When a dump truck passed by, he sprinted to catch up and grabbed a hook on the back, holding on for several blocks until pain and exhaustion forced him to drop to the ground, where he tumbled to a stop. Bruised and soaked to the skin, he stumbled the last four blocks to the house and went inside. The roof had blown off, but he secured the house as best he could and found a dry place to rest and keep watch. 

 La Paz was in the grip of darkness and chaos. Officials were concerned about the levee. Army engineers reported that a section protecting the central part of La Paz was weakening. If it gave way, rushing water could demolish the central part of town.

Sometime between 8 and 9 pm, a large gap opened in the section of the levee above the poorer areas of town and quickly eroded into a major break. A wall of water, mud, cactus, trees, brush, and boulders poured through the gap carrying an unlucky soldier with it. It flowed around the eastern base of Cerro Atravesado and crashed through the Colonias of Benito Juarez and Roma, burying or sweeping away houses, cars, and the people inside. The flood and its victims hurtled through the arroyos where squatters had erected shelters and continued through the outlying neighborhoods along Calles Nayarit, Oaxaca, and Jalisco to the Bay.

Survivors reported hearing screams for help from the victims. A family that heeded the government’s belated warning piled into the family car and headed across an arroyo towards the safety of a shelter just as the wall of water came roaring down on them. 

It was 11 that night when the storm finally passed. Arturo went to get his brother Manuel who had a 4-wheel drive vehicle. When they went to get his stalled car, they found it half-buried in sand and gravel and were unable to pull it out. The next day, they walked to the area of destruction. The wall of water had demolished or swept away most of the houses in its path. There were bodies everywhere, often just an arm or head jutting from the sand or the window of a partially buried car. The brothers felt lucky to be alive.

Disbelief and grief swept the city. The government ordered communal graves dug to bury the dead. Officials reported that some 600 people had lost their lives, and at least 350 were missing. However, others claimed more than 6000 had died. Twenty thousand or more people were left homeless in a city with 85,000. [3, 4]

La Paz after Hurricane Liza
 Photo by Harry Merrick

It took Arturo several weeks to repair his house. His father later joined his sons in La Paz. The brothers tracked down their mom in the United States and flew her to La Paz for a family reunion. Arturo and Alicia purchased a lot in El Sargento in the early 2000s.

Bing Crosby flew into La Paz around midday on September 30 and rented a jeep. He stopped at a mechanic’s garage on his way out to Las Cruces. The mechanic warned that a hurricane was coming their way. He turned around and headed back to La Paz to find shelter. Shortly afterward, floodwaters washed out the road to Las Cruces.                                                           

In his book, Cuando se Seca La Raiz, Omar Castro shows how a young boy caught in the disaster relived the event years later.[5] Young Beto was the only person in his family to survive the tragedy of El Bordo, as the levee was referred to locally. Beto’s parents had helped the four children climb onto the roof to escape the rising floodwaters inside their tiny home. From the top of their small house near the levee, Beto and his younger brother Pepe, and two younger sisters, Catita and Marichuy, had clung to each other, unaware that their parents had just been swept away by the surging flood that struck their house. Beto watched in shock as a passing tree limb knocked Pepe and Catita from the roof, and they quickly disappeared under the swirling water and sand. Beto clung to his baby sister, Marichuy. The rushing water, sand, and gravel tore away at the house’s foundation until it disintegrated beneath them. Beto grabbed onto a passing timber as the surging current swept them away. Beto struggled to hold Marichuy’s head above the surface, but she slipped from his grip and disappeared. Beto managed to survive. Years later, he married, and he and his wife raised three children, a boy and two girls named Pepe, Catita, and Marichuy. Every evening, before telling his children goodnight, Beto hugged them close for a long time. Each time he felt he was clinging to his young brother and two sisters before losing them to the raging water, and he quietly sobs.  “¿Porque llorras papito?” (Why are you crying, papa dear?) Pepe, Catita and Marichuy ask.  Beto composes himself but is unable to answer their question. He gives them another strong hug and tells the children goodnight.

After hurricane Liza, engineers built the Buena Mujer dam on the upper El Cajoncito to hold the excess runoff and recharge aquifers during storms. They replaced the breeched levee with one that met stricter engineering standards. But when it rains in La Paz, many streets still turn into arroyos. Every dozen years or so, another hurricane strikes the region. In La Paz on September 30, the people who died in the great tragedy of 1976 are still remembered.


[2] The following story, edited for clarity and length, is drawn from hours of conversations with Arturo, And Alicia.

[3] A newspaper account of Liza. 

[4] A newspaper account of Hurricane Liza and Sebastian Diaz’s warning.

[5] In El Bordo, one of the stories told by Omar Castro in his book Cuando se Seca La Raiz (currently not in print), the author shows how the traumatic experiences people had during the tragedy of Hurricane Liza affected them years later. This paragraph is a translation and summary of the story’s ending.