Since the weather is now perfect, and rain is once again a distant memory, I’d like to contrast this perfection with a few stories of our greatest weather related disaster, the great flood of New Year’s Day 1934. Our weather here is similar to a popular description of war: “Long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” We have long periods of picture perfect days, and occasionally – every few years – weather disasters of Biblical proportions.
The flood of 1934 was just such a disaster, made worse by the fact that the valley had only recently been populated by Easterners, unaware that they were building their homes on slopes formed by violent floods that happen only every hundred years or so. In this horrifying instance, great chunks of the San Gabriel Mountains, denuded by fire in November 1933, had collapsed down onto the Crescenta Valley during a violent rainstorm right at midnight of New Year’s Eve. Fast-moving mudslides destroyed hundreds of homes and claimed scores of victims in the inky blackness of midnight.
The Nuzum family, living on upper side of Mayfield Avenue just east of Rosemont, experienced the horror of seeing their neighbors die. That New Year’s Eve, hours of torrential rains had piled rocks and mud against the back of their house. During a break in the torrent they reached out to their neighbors on each side to shelter in the Nuzums’ more substantial house. Mr. and Mrs. Aiello and their two children did so and joined the Nuzums. But the Higley family to the west, Mom, Dad and two kids, chose to stay in their own home. At midnight the Nuzums and Aiellos heard the roar of crashing, grinding rocks approaching from the north, could feel the ground shaking, and ran away from the sound toward the front wall of the house. Boulders burst through the back doors and windows, and water and mud began to quickly fill the room. Mr. Nuzum saw the simple solution, waded to the front door, opened it, and the water flowed out in a rush. While standing there he peered out into the darkness west toward the Higley home, just as the Higley’s front wall collapsed. He saw Mrs. Higley and the two kids topple out with the wreckage, and disappear into the darkness. He watched another house disintegrate and could hear the flood hitting the American Legion Hall a block south, where dozens of refugees were sheltering. Entire trees and sections of houses were flashing past in the darkness, and crashing and screams could be heard.
A few minutes later, in the relative calm after the mudslide had roared through, the Nuzums and the Aiellos elected to seek a safer spot. Holding tight to each other, they waded out into the waist-deep water and mud. Heading west down Mayfield through the darkness, they passed wrecked homes, until they found the undamaged home of a friend on Rosemont where they stayed until morning. The Nuzum home was heavily damaged, but reparable. Most of their furniture was wrecked, and some personal items were later stolen by looters.
It was discovered that Mr. and Mrs. Higley had both been killed, Mr. Higley’s body eventually being found in the Pacific Ocean. The two Higley children were unharmed but were now orphans. A decade ago, when the CV Historical Society dedicated the flood monument at Fairway and Rosemont, the son of one of the two orphaned Higley children attended the dedication ceremony. He told us that his father was still too traumatized by the event to face a reminder of it, even 70 years later.
In the next few weeks, I’ll cover more flood stories, some already told and some not heard since 1934. In the meantime, if you enjoy learning about this amazing disaster, I’d recommend my good friend Art Cobery’s book “The Great Crescenta Valley Flood – New Year’s Day 1934,” available at bookstores and Amazon. It covers many stories, including the one above, along with why the disaster happened and what was done to prevent it in the future. Good reading for a warm spring day.