75 years ago this week: Southern California transportation infrastructure nearly destroyed in epic storm

Los Angeles River flooding

Very few people likely remember when “The Big One” struck the Los Angeles area. Not an earthquake, but a storm against which all others are measured.

In the first week of March, 1938, an already wet winter was capped off by a deluge previously unseen in the area.

More than 11 inches of rain in downtown Los Angeles (and more than 30 inches at Lake Arrowhead) washed out countless roads and bridges, as well as streetcar and rail lines.

For a short time, Los Angeles was even cut off from the outside world and the damage was the final straw for proponents of flood control on the Los Angeles River.

The full story is over at the Metro Library's Primary Resources blog with links to numerous photos, maps and stories in a 1938 publication from the California Department of Highways and Public Works.


Categories: Transportation News

3 replies

  1. As someone who knows the history (family roots here before 1938) and has worked on/in the river I will share a few thoughts.
    Yes, the river can flood and has caught people up in it and they have died. However, the river -can- be rehabilitated and made more usable, without comprising safety. Other cities have made improvements to their areas that flood and made them usable for recreative purposes. The main issue to make it safe is to insure that access can be controlled when flooding is likely. Re-working the banks and bottom can make it more natural and still allow the major flood flows to pass safely. Most people don’t realize that there is a ‘natural’ bottom section of the river that goes from about the 134 to just before the 110.

    Most of the work on the river that is being planned will actually improve the capacity of the river. The banks will be laid back at a shallower angle. This will increase the cross-section in that area. Also, by changing the banks and bottom, there will be some increase in the recharge of the groundwater. Los Angeles is ‘park poor’, rehabbing the river will improve this. There will be a great benefit to wildlife when the river is rejuvenated.

    No one is calling for the removal of the Sepulveda or Hansen Dams (both built after 1938) or those upstream, like the Pacoima Dam or Big Tujunga.
    With those still in place the river flow can be managed. The 1992 heavy rains allowed for testing of the river capacity. ‘Maximum’ releases happened and except for some localize events at a couple of locations (where there were bridges going across), the river did not overflow its banks.

  2. And the LA River is a vital flood control channel that can kill. People seem to forget that when they talk about how they want parks and kiddies and all manor of uses for it. Remember the Sepulveda Dam/Basin Rec Center flooding that trapped some 75 vehicles and their occupants, nearly killing them if LAFD hadn’t had a fleet of fire rescue helicopters save their lives by plucking people to safety back in 1992? And former Assemblyman Richard Katz wanted the LA River to serve as a freeway before that disaster!
    LA floods naturally and all the rivers that are now flood control channels are so for a very good and life and property saving reason. Yet, some fight and pine for the good old days of rivers overflowing their banks and damaging and killing. Without the flood control channels, LA would NOT exist as it is today. I really wish transplants would read the history of where they now live.

  3. More than likely, it is not a case of few people “likely remembering” the event; it is a case of them no longer being alive if they, by chance, were old enough to have lived through it.