CityDig: El Niño Was a Whole Lot Worse in 1938

See the river on this map? Add 10 to 32 inches of rainfall over three days, and it becomes a rampaging torrent

The specter of El Niño looms in Angelenos’ collective consciousness as we anticipate flooding, mudslides, and excruciating commutes on rain soaked freeways. Though the stormy season may seem frightening for those filling sandbags, securing gutters, and cleaning scuppers and downspouts, this is far from the first time L.A. has seen rain. Since Los Angeles’ beginning, sizable storms have occasionally shifted the course of the river, drowning crops, houses, and people. Near the end of the 18th century, both the San Gabriel Mission and the original pueblo of Los Angeles were relocated due to flooding of the rain-swollen “Porciuncula,” as the L.A. River was then known. Since that time, the river and El Niño have played a major part in shaping and reshaping the city.

Los Angeles Quadrangle, United States Geologic Survey, 1928

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On this topographic map of L.A. proper, the Los Angeles River appears benign, a thin stroke bisecting the right half of the map. But in 1938, ten years after this map was made, the docile river became a deluge that wrought incredible damage on the surrounding areas. For the last two days of February and the first day of March in 1938, two storms belted the basin, dumping a total of 10 inches of rain on the flatlands. In the mountains, the figure was closer to 32 inches.

Streams became engorged and dams strained at the seams all over Southern California, as the Santa Ana, San Gabriel, and Los Angeles rivers burst their banks and swept away roads, bridges, and buildings. The flooding took 115 lives and over 6,000 homes, doing $40 million in damage. In Orange County, Irvine was six feet under water, while in L.A. County, towns like Venice, Compton, and Long Beach were rendered impassible. The flood wiped out power throughout the basin, plunging 3,000 county hospital patients into darkness. The first two days of downpour alone surpassed the yearly average. In some places the course of the river changed by nearly a mile, destroying entire neighborhoods. The Academy Awards were postponed for a week because many nominees could not pass the flooded roads of the San Fernando Valley.

Until 1938, discussions about reigning in the river had been fruitless (even when the powerful railroad lobby got involved). But after the floods that year, citizens demanded action, and they turned to the federal government for help. Under the auspices of the WPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turned the wild river into a flood control channel by lowering and widening its path to the sea and encasing it in concrete. They moved 20 million cubic yards of earth (that’s about 800,000 dump trucks-worth), retrofitting a total of 278 miles of river in the Southland. While they covered the natural beauty of the old Porciuncula, their work successfully tamed the river and protected the population of Los Angeles from El Niño-induced floods.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.