Flooding in North Hollywood, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Seventy-five years ago, a deluge of rain hit Los Angeles and the surrounding area, leading to massive floods and causing millions of dollars in damage and a devastating loss of life. Many factors led to this destruction: too much rain, inadequate construction of bridges and roads, and homes and businesses located in flood-prone areas. One of the unfortunate consequences of the floods was the eventual concreting of the Los Angeles River, ruining its beauty.
Although other areas of the country suffered through droughts and dust storms in the 1930s, Los Angeles and Southern California endured large amounts of rainfall. Most years saw higher than normal annual rain levels. 1937 saw 17.85 inches fall by March 1, while 1934 saw the largest amount of rain since the 1860s.
1938 started out with heavy rains, growing worse through February. Small patches of flooding caused concerns throughout the city. On Feb. 28, a severe storm hit the area, leading to five days of disaster.
The March 1, 1938, Los Angeles Times noted that gale winds hit the coast, and more than 2.5 inches of rain fell on Feb. 28. Seasonal rain totals reached 14.43 inches, more than 4 inches above average.
Downpours led to slides on the Angeles Crest and washed out roads throughout the area. Venice streets resembled canals after drainage from other areas inundated the community. Slides closed parts of Topanga Canyon, stranding thousands. Minor slides hit parts of Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway) north out of Santa Monica. Many canyons saw homes washed from their foundations. Laurel Canyon and Victory Boulevards conjoined into a giant lake.
March 2 brought greater tragedies. A pedestrian bridge crossing the Los Angeles River in Long Beach collapsed, causing 10 people to be swept away. The same day, a 250-foot span of the Lankershim Boulevard Bridge crossing the Los Angeles River adjacent to Universal Studios collapsed at 5:30 pm, with five people drowning. William Fender, Universal Studios superintendent, told the March 3 Los Angeles Times, “I saw 10 houses, a restaurant and Lakeside Golf Course washed away.”
By March 3, five days of heavy rains led to the highest rain totals in 25 years, with desperate citizens evacuating and seeking higher ground. The three railroads stopped operations, halting all traffic entering or departing the Southern California area because of bridge washouts. Pacific Electric and buses halted service in many areas. A landslide careened into Elysian Park. The floodgates at Big Tujunga Dam opened to save it from destruction. Van Nuys stood as an island, with all bridges surrounding it washed away or underwater. The Chandler and Magnolia Boulevard bridges were condemned. Trees blocked roads in Laurel Canyon. A gas main burst on the Los Angeles River under the 9th Street Bridge, engulfing it in flames. Frame houses and wooden bridges snapped like kindling, like the Fair Avenue bridge in North Hollywood, while others floated away like rubber toys. Pasadena witnessed its worst floods since 1927, with several dams in the San Gabriel Valley spilling over their lips.
While these conditions were serious, radio broadcasters created more havoc from the sometimes outlandish and unconfirmed stories they spun. As the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times stated, “If the broadcasters of these whole-cloth yarns had been in competition with one another to see who could concoct and disseminate the most alarming and least authenticated report the result could hardly have been worse.” Some tall tales purported entire towns drowned or on the point of drowning, highway tunnels caving in and dams ready to burst. The vast majority of these broadcasters never contacted the National Weather Service or Los Angeles city/county officials for accurate information.
A washed-out bridge, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
By March 4, more than 2,500 refugees sought shelter, 1,500 homes were uninhabitable, and more than 1,200 were homeless, including 400 in North Hollywood, 300 in Sierra Madre, and 400 in Canoga Park. For the five days, more than 11 inches of rain fell, the most in 61 years, bringing the yearly total to 21.73 inches of rain on March 3, 1938.
The March 7, 1938, papers listed 92 deaths, 130 missing, 5,600 homes damaged, and destruction damage of $44.5 million.
The devastation led the Red Cross to set up relief funds, as did local and state bodies. Because of tight financial conditions at the time, the Los Angeles City Council only approved $84,000 from a reserve fund on March 8, along with $100,000 to build temporary bridges, asking the federal government for almost $5 million.
The state Legislature set up a $1-million highway fund, and the Works Progress Administration created 4,000 flood relief jobs to dig out roads and bridges, along with other construction work.
As usual, shortsightedness and profit-seeking caused much of the damage, with home and business construction in areas prone to flooding and devastation. L. Deming Tilton, head of the California State Planning Commission told The Times on March 7 that he would ask the Legislature for increased powers over state land. “Until the state and its communities are given legal powers to determine the use of California land, premised upon the conviction that the public welfare comes before private profit, there seems to be no way of preventing such toll of life and property as this storm has taken. Under existing conditions, these disasters are not merely probable, they are absolutely certain.”
A house in the Los Angeles River, Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
On March 3, the Legislature estimated damage at $65 million, and requested $11 million in relief from President Roosevelt.
Maj. Theodore J. Wyman Jr. of the district Army Corps of Engineers recommended that the federal government spend up to $20 million for flood control projects. He noted that flood-control dams had indeed controlled some losses and damage, preventing a worse catastrophe, and claimed in the March 10 Times that if Hansen Dam and Van Nuys Dam had been constructed, “There would have been no flooding on the Los Angeles River.”
While a vast overstatement, Wyman’s claim contained a nugget of truth. Only a small part of the project to concrete the river had been completed.
The state suggested a 1-cent gas tax to help pay for flood damage, with The Times suggesting that it and other additional taxes were “unprecedented class taxation,” hitting the upper middle class and rich particularly hard.
Even with generous donations of food, clothes and money from local areas and around the nation, the Red Cross Relief Fund of $283,000 was inadequate for the heavy demand, forcing the Red Cross to only give money to the destitute. The Los Angeles Times raised almost $30,000 in its relief fund as of March 18, but that too was merely a pittance to help the unfortunate. Only years later with the creation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more public programs, and increased insurance, would the public be better served in times of natural disaster.
On March 17, 1938, Brig. Gen. Max C. Tyler, assistant chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, suggested building more dams and storm channels, and city engineer Aldrich stated that more should be done for flood control to protect washes and riverbanks. This would eventually lead to creating a concrete channel in place of the Los Angeles River. While it has prevented huge disasters on the scale of that in 1938, it has not completely prevented flooding or other problems.