New Year is supposed to be a time of celebration.
But that was not the case for thousands of people who were affected by the worst disaster of the 1990s – the New Year’s floods of 1997 which inundated 70 square miles, damaged 800 homes, caused $100 million in property damage, and forced the evacuation of about 2,000 residents in the areas between Manteca and Tracy.
The De Ruyter family on South Airport Way was among those hardest-hit by the catastrophe. Not only did they worry about evacuating their home and securing their single-level house from the rushing waters that breached the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers near their home. There were also 500 milking cows at the family’s dairy that they needed to rescue and transport to safety as quickly as possible so they don’t get stranded by the flood waters.
Those hectic moments are still clearly etched in the minds of dairyman Daniel De Ruyter, his wife Judith, and their son and two daughters. It’s been 15 years since that devastating disaster, but Dan De Ruyter still talks about it as if it just happened yesterday.
“We took the cows out to three, four different places. All our neighbors and friends, and people up and down the valley came up to help. A lot of people we didn’t even know came down and volunteered their time – FFA and 4-H groups,” recalled De Ruyter.
Some of their cows went to a dairy in Grayson; others went to a dairy in Hughson; while some went to a feed lot. These were dairies owned by people they knew.
Amazingly, and thanks to the help of those many kind-hearted people, the task was completed pretty quickly.
“We did it in a couple of hours,” De Ruyter said of the time involved in moving all the cows to the temporary facilities where they stayed for up to a month when the flood waters have receded.
Fortunately, they had ample time to save their livestock from ruin.
“We knew the day before that (the flood) was coming because we could see the water coming down (from the levees), and it was just way too much,” De Ruyter recalled.
“It was very bad,” De Ruyter said of that historic devastation. Many farmers were also hit hard when their “crops got drowned” in the flood waters that inundated the area’s rich agricultural lands for not just days but weeks, even months in some places.
“We had about a foot of water in the house,” he said, describing the situation in their home located not far from the dairy.
They were able to avoid further disaster hitting their personal properties. “We’ve moved everything out the day before” they transported their cattle to safety, De Ruyter said.
With their home flooded inside, the De Ruyters took refuge “for a couple of days” at the home of one of their daughters.
“A friend of hours offered their house – they just built a new house – and we lived the better part of four months there in Ripon,” De Ruyter said.
Going back to their house and to their dairy when it was safe to do so meant even more work and worries for the family. Because the house was waterlogged for a long period of time, they needed to put on new sheetrock and insulation plus “new carpets and appliances and stuff,” said the second-generation dairy farmer.
“I was born on a dairy,” said De Ruyter who followed in his father’s footsteps by working for other people in the business before starting on his own.
“Most dairymen start that way; a lot of them do that,” he explained.
Now, it’s their son Troy’s turn to take over the business. However, De Ruyter said he and wife Judith “still do some work – book work” for the dairy, he said.
“Judy used to work (in the family business); she helped out a lot,” said the semi-retired dairyman who, with wife Judy, now have more time sprucing up their yard and garden at their new home.
As for a repeat of the devastating floods of 1997, De Ruyter predicts without mincing words, “It’s going to happen again. No other way to put it because of the stupid people who run the dams, and the government. They are more concerned about fish than they are about people.”