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Flo the Cow, Lady DiFi in high heels, Grapes of Wrath & that’s what that mound of dirt is for
1997 flood
This Bulletin file photo shows the Islander Mobile Home Park on Woodward Avenue west of Manteca and south of Lathrop that was among the areas flooded in January 1997.

It was 25 years ago this week that a few New York media types butchered the enunciation of Manteca as “Man-tech-a” thanks to a breaking news story.

They also created the impression Manteca was in the middle of nowhere in the boondocks cut-off from the rest of the world as their reporters breathlessly described the unfolding disaster of levees failing along the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers.

The fun folks at CNN also went nuts for a week giving live updates that were repeated every 20 minutes about Flo.

Flo was a cow someone decided it would be funny to give a nickname. Flo literally caught the attention of the CNN viewership by escaping rising flood waters by climbing on top of the roof of a building.

Apparently cows can swim, pull themselves up out of water and mosey onto the middle of a roof when the occasion calls for it.

Would-be rescuers tried for days to coax Flo from her perch surrounded by floodwaters just outside of Manteca. Hay didn’t work. Trying to nudge her off into a boat wasn’t doing the trick.

When Flo the Cow decided to dip her hoofs back into gently floating floodwaters it was big news.

Flo the Cow was just one of a number of outtakes from a trying week that ended up forcing the evacuation of some 10,000 plus dairy cows. There were also 2,000 people that fled their homes for higher ground in 70 square miles of the countryside that flooded between Manteca and Tracy. Overall 800 houses and other buildings were damaged. Losses were pegged at between $80 million and $100 million.

. . .

Flo the Cow was not the only memorable footage.

My favorite — and candidate for the “duh” interview of the year — was a story KCRA-TV did on residents in Weston Ranch that had secured every rental truck in a 500-mile radius along with any other vehicle they could and jammed as much of their belongings in them as possible.

They then parked the loaded vehicles in their driveways waiting for the mandatory evacuation order that never came

While pensively waiting for word as levee crews were battling 80 hours non-stop for to keep it from failing near the bend in the San Joaquin River near Mossdale Crossing, TV crews roamed the Weston Ranch neighborhood.

Some 7,000 people were poised to hit the road given state emergency officials said the levee failing would only give them less than seven hours to flee.

KCRA happened to come across a somewhat indignant couple willing to share their thoughts. They proved to be more than accommodating.

As they stood in their backyard telling the reporter if they had known there was a potential for flooding that they never would have bought their home, the cameraman scanned the background behind them to get a panorama shot of the 30-foot high French Camp Slough behind their house.

Obviously they had no clue what a levee does.

. . .

Arguably the most bizarre — and enduring moment — was when then State Senator Mike Machado was able to get U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to pay a visit to the dry levee just south of Woodward Avenue where California Conservation Corps crews were re-enforcing and watching the levee for an 80-hour period while it was touch-and-go.

When they reached a point where the levee crown was mucky as plastic had wiggled its way from under the weight of sand bags, Machado — always the gentleman and dressed more like the farmer he was for the situation — extended his hand to help Lady DiFi keep her balance as she navigated the mess.

Did I mention the U.S. Senator was wearing a dress with her trademark neckless accented with black high heels?

Feinstein was dressed as if she were at attending a campaign fundraiser at the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco.

. . .

The moment that many realized the levee breaks could become a major catastrophe beyond what it already was happened when Caltrans crews plugged the underpass of the 120 Bypass at McKinley Avenue and the underpass of Interstate 5 at Louise Avenue with a 10-foot high mound of dirt covered with plastic sheeting.

A skip-loader and piles of dirt were placed by the I-5 underpass at Lathrop Road.

The plugs — coupled along with the deliberate design of the 120 Bypass and I-5 through Lathrop — created fallback emergency levees in case either or both the dry levee south of Woodward Avenue and the San Joaquin River levee at Mossdale failed.

Modeling by the state Office of Emergency Services at the time noted such failures would send up to 3 inches of water rushing into the neighborhoods near Sierra High and within seven hours of a break several feet of water into Weston Ranch.

 Back then there was no tract housing south of the Bypass in Manteca or west of I-5 in Lathrop let alone Lathrop High, other schools, and commercial development.

. . .

The most insensitive reporting hands down went to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In not one but two different stories reporters compared the line of traffic snaking northward toward Manteca from the flood zone on Union Road, Manteca Road, and Airport Way loaded with dairy cattle, farm equipment, and household items/personal belongings to the exodus from the Midwest during the Great Depression as depicted by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath’.

It fit nicely with the urban elite narrative that farmers and those in the hinterlands of the Great Central Valley that grow food they eat at trendy San Francisco restaurants were nothing but an unwashed mass of impoverished bumpkins.

. . .

A year later after politicians in Sacramento and key bureaucrats vowed to address the cause of flooding to verify whether anecdotal evidence offered by farmers and reclamation districts that silt built up over the years reduced river capacity and helped weaken levees and justified potential dredging, everyone except for those who suffered property damage acted as if the flood never happened.

And here we are 25 years after the last major flood taking our sweet time to reduce the area’s exposure to a repeat performance that — given more intensive development since then — could have significantly worse consequences including the loss of life.

. . .

So whatever happened to Flow the Cow? As bizarre as it may sound some idiot killed her a year or so later by shooting her with arrows.



This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at