This Week in L.A. History: Catastrophic Flood Wreaks Havoc Across The City


On February 27, 1938, a relentless 5-day storm sweeps the southland, causing the deadliest flood in California history.

The rainfall ended on March 3,but the damage caused by gushing silt and debris-laden water lingered over Southern California. Rushing floodwater from the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Anita rivers destroyed thousands of buildings and took lives. In West Los Angeles, flooded streets stalled traffic and forced schools across the county to close. The fatal flood, which took more than 100 lives, disrupted telephone newspaper services and caused $40 million in damages (well over $600 million dollars in value today).

Massive mudslides from the San Gabriel Mountains produced roadblocks and trapped dozens of victims inside their homes. The 1938 Academy Awards, which was scheduled to take place on March 3, was postponed for the first time, as many Hollywood stars were among those stranded in the Valley. In the days following the flood, sensational reports rolled in; one announcer went as far as reporting the flood had washed Calabasas off the map.

The flood of 1938 was considered a 50-year flood, an event with a 2% chance of occurrence in any given year. The unprecedented damage prompted engineers to introduce new flood control measures—namely, the construction of flood control dams including the Sepulveda, Hansen, and Whittier Narrows dams. The next major flood to hit the Los Angeles area came in November 1950 and was responsible for 9 deaths and  $32 million in damages.

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