Waiting For The Rain While Remembering a Flood From Our Past
Waiting for the predicted El Niño rains has everyone in the valley on the edge of their seats. The deluge so far has only been a deluge of media outlets predicting disaster in the form of massive precipitation. A few naysayers have already begun to call this a false alarm, but we are assured that the promised rain will come. It should remind us of another time in our history when everyone waited anxiously for the rain, only to be inundated. That time was the winter of 1933-34, when the anticipated rainfall came all at once, creating the defining historical event of our history, the New Years Day Flood of 1934.
In the several years leading up to 1934, the rainfall totals locally had been close to normal, even slightly on the low side. In November 1933, a fire went out of control on the front side of the San Gabriel Mountains above the Crescenta Valley, denuding about 5,000 acres of the mountain face above us. Flood control experts of that time were concerned about the possibility of flooding and mudslides, and a few check dams were immediately constructed in the canyons. However, the fairly normal rainfall totals of the previous years gave reassurance to the idea that all would be well. The valley waited to see what would happen.
On Dec. 14 and Dec. 15, a healthy rainstorm dropped a good four inches of rain on the ashen hillsides with no ill effect, further assuring the populace that the bare mountains would absorb the winter’s rain. Christmas passed and it wasn’t until Dec. 29 that any rain fell again in the form of a gentle drizzle. But by the next day, Dec. 30, that drizzle had been replaced with a steadier rain. A tropical storm had moved in and stalled over Los Angeles, stuck hard against the San Gabriels where it began to shed its moisture.
It continued to rain steadily all that day and through the night. Dawn of Dec. 31 showed no slackening of the consistent steady rain. The valley had now received several inches of rain, and runoff was beginning to affect homeowners. People with shovels were out in their yards filling sandbags and trying to divert flowing water around their homes. In the afternoon, the rain increased, and a few homeowners found themselves overwhelmed. As darkness fell, residents whose homes had been breached by mud and water began to show up at the American Legion Hall to wait out the storm in someplace dry. After 11 p.m., the moisture-laden clouds, still pumping out a heavy downpour, rose into the higher elevations of the San Gabriels. There, stuck on the peaks, the clouds simply opened up and dumped their final load.
For 15 minutes the water came out of the clouds like a thousand fire hoses.
It was too much for the now soaked mountain. The mud on the face of the mountains slid down into the roaring water-filled canyons, where it mixed with decades of accumulated rocks and debris, and was ejected. For the next 20 minutes, every canyon above us violently vomited out deadly streams of rocks and mud. Those huge flows raced down the slope of the valley in churning walls 20 feet high, diverging and flattening out just below Foothill Boulevard, and continuing down to the base of the Verdugos, taking out everything in their path.
All this occurred in the black darkness in a driving rain. People inside their houses heard what sounded like a train coming down the mountain toward them, getting louder as it approached, and violently shaking the ground. Houses were swept cleanly off their foundations and splintered into a thousand pieces. Cars were tumbled, then buried. Scores of people were killed or injured.
Could this kind of disaster happen today, given the grim predictions of a record-breaking rainy season? We have a flood control system in place that wasn’t there in ’34, and our fire-scarred mountains have largely re-grown. But this kind of event is natural for our valley, so given enough rain, who knows?