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Los Angeles Flood of 1938: The Destruction Begins

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In remembrance of the 1938 flood — the catastrophe that led to measures for flood control — this is the second in a four-part series exploring safety and responsibility in the Los Angeles River. Don't miss part one, part three, and part four of the series. Explore the history and current issues of the river in Departures: L.A. River.

The storm began late Sunday night on February 27th 1938. By the second day of rainfall the official weather forecast reported that Los Angeles and vicinity will be "unsettled with rain Monday and probably Tuesday" - an understatement for the havoc to come. In twenty-four hours - by 10:30 p.m., February 28th - the average seasonal rainfall in Los Angeles was up to 14.43 inches. In comparison, the normal seasonal amount at that point was 10.88 inches. By the third day of the storm, even heavier rainfall poured down, overwhelming the river from the Valley down to Long Beach. The storm would last for five days.

Several Feared Lost in River-thumb-250x211-24377

The powerful force exceeded man's expectations for natural disaster along the river. Major infrastructures collapsed directly in view of bystanders, telephone connections were lost, and lives were taken with the rapidly bulging current. Destruction spread as long and wide as the river. In Universal City, 250-feet of concrete washed away the Lankershim Boulevard Bridge along with a cafe, ten homes and the Lakeside Golf Course. On the westside, the waters swallowed eight-square miles of Venice around Venice Boulevard, Washington Street, Brooks Avenue, Trolley Way and Mildred Avenue. The Red Cross evacuated 800 men, women and children evacuated in the area early in the morning on March 2nd. Rowmen from the canals rescued trapped residents who could not escape in time. Long Beach witnesses saw ten people - including a small boy, four men, three sailors and two women - fall into the water with a wooden pedestrian bridge.

The disaster killed 144 people and left the county with repairs lasting for years, prompting the plans for ways to control this unpredictable strip of nature. When we think of ways to revitalize the Los Angeles River today, it is important to understand the power of the river - which can be unexpectedly destructive.

To get a sense of the dangers witnessed by Angelenos at the time, check out some archival clippings from the Los Angeles' Times coverage of the historic floods:

Houses Collapse Bridges Washed Out-thumb-600x792-24371
Ten Hurled to Death When River Sweeps Away Bridge-1-thumb-600x163-24375
Going Going Gone Valley Eating Place Pushed Over Brink By S-thumb-600x221-24374
Many Southland Cities List Result of Havoc-thumb-600x251-24376
Rushing Floodwaters in Los Angeles River Demolish Railroad -thumb-600x793-24372

This video uploaded to Youtube by americanhistorygal provides a rare color glimpse of the destructive power of the L.A. River:

1938 Calif Killer Flood

All images from the Los Angeles Times Historical Archives courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

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