Thursday, April 12, 2012

Myth that Floods of 1938 Caused the LA River to be Cemented Continues to Live

In LA OBSERVED today, Kevin Roderick links to a blog post by David J. Barboza which describes a five hour bus tour (and I will suppress any allusion to any five hour boar tour) of the history of the San Fernando Valley hosted by Roderick (which I deeply regret that I missed) and mentions a few errors that were made in Barboza's taking notes during that five hour tour.  But, as is typical in the convoluted, uncollated and poorly recorded history of LA, there needs be be a correction of one part of that correction.

Barboza states:
Between and to the north of Sherman Oaks and Encino lies the Sepulveda Basin, including the Sepulveda Dam. The dam was developed to control the LA River in response to devastating floods in 1937.
Roderick corrects:
Couple of clarifications to his report, just for the historical record. The Beatles did not play at the Bob Eubanks' Cinnamon Cinder club (they held a press conference before performing at Hollywood Bowl in '64), gangster Mickey Cohen did not shoot Jack Whalen at Rondelli's (but he was there when it happened), and the flooding that triggered the construction of Sepulveda Dam and cementing of the Los Angeles River occurred in 1938.

Now the correct part of  the correction is that the great flood of 1938 happened in... 1938.  It did not happen in 1937.  But the part of the correction that needs correcting is that the flood of 1938 had nothing to do with the plans for the cementing of the LA River - or the construction of the Sepulveda Flood Control Basin.

In fact, that entire flood control system had already started construction even before1938 flood occurred.  But in Kevin's defense, it has long been part of LA lore and history that 1938 flood that was the reason for those plans and I myself was raised hearing that same statement over and over again from the generations before me.


But, as Blake Gumprech reported in his now classic book “The Los Angeles River”, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001, we were all wrong in believing that.  Instead, the inspiration for those flood control devices began with the 1914 floods which led to a bond issue in 1926 that was defeated.  


However, after the single worst one day flood in LAs history on January 1st, 1934, a new far larger bond issue (ten times as much money) was passed by LA County voters.  Then  in March of 1934 a vastly larger project was endorsed by a presidential committee and that was followed in  July of 1935 with 13.9 million in federal funds being allocated and - finally - in 1936 almost 25% of all federal funds from the Flood Control Act of 1936 were allocated to Los Angeles Country to avoid repeat of the 1934 flood and the project had been expanded to flood control basins such as the one built at the Supulveda.


And all of that was just getting under construction when the Flood of 1938 hit.   So, when the work resumed right after the flood waters had receded, it was only natural that it would be forever embedded in local memories - that the project was a result of the flood of 1938.


And below is a short except from a great website on the history of flood control.  And if anyone wants a 2 hour walking tour of Historic Downtown Los Angeles, check out www.historicdowntownlosangeles.blogspot.com for the hours of each weekend's  "Historic Downtown LA 101 Tour and the "how Los Angeles Invented the Wild West - and Why No One Knows it Tour.  Each tour costs $15 and begins at THE LAST BOOKSTORE at 453 S. Spring Street.




Fallout from the New Year’s Day Flood 1934

In the days after the New Year’s Flood on January 1, 1934, LA County’s Chief Engineer E.C. Eaton was understandably apoplectic. He blamed the disaster on the defeat of the 1926 bond issue mentioned above, which would have provided $2.4 million for flood control construction in the area where damages were greatest. (16) He said, “In no case where permanent types of protection work were installed was serious damage experienced.” (17) For his efforts, the public turned against him, blaming him for the failure of flood control. He resigned in August 1934.
In the fall of 1934, the desperate LA County Board of Supervisors placed a $26.3 million local bond issue on the ballot to fund emergency improvements in the foothills and numerous other projects similar to those that the voters had handily rejected in 1926 (see above). The funds were meant for constructing 1) 12 “debris basins” in the La Canada Valley to capture debris flows before they reached the communities located there; 2) concrete channels to carry water from the debris basins to the Los Angeles basin; and 3 levees along the entire river. Again the citizens of LA defeated the measure by a 4 percent margin. (17)
The Federal Government Takes Over Flood Control in LA County
With the failure of the local referendum, the LA County supervisors again turned to Washington where they requested $19.3 million from the federal government under the “Emergency Relief Appropriation Act”, a Depression-era recovery program created by the US Congress. This act had been passed in April 1935 and granted President Roosevelt $5 billion with which to implement relief programs and government employment programs. (18) Interestingly, a presidential committee had already endorsed the comprehensive plan created by E.C. Eaton inMarch 1934, which carried a price tag of around $100 million and included 64 separate projects, according to Gumprecht.
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In July 1935, President Roosevelt allocated $13.9 million in Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds to finance 14 of the most pressing projects in Eaton’s comprehensive plan. LA County provided $3.5 million to purchase land needed for the projects, as homes had been built all along the Los Angeles River directly in its flood plain. All work was placed under the US Army Corps of Engineers and was to be carried out by unemployed local laborers on WPA relief rolls. (19) Most of the relief funds went to improving channels and constructing debris basins at the openings of San Gabriel canyons. The US Congress in July also funded a preliminary examination of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers and their tributaries by the US Army Corps of Engineers as prelude to a federally-funded LA County flood control program.
The Flood Control Act of 1936
In 1936 the US Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1936, which greatly expanded the role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in addressing the nation’s flooding problems. In the 1930s, flood control was conceptualized as the “use of large, expensive, and environmentally intrusive physical structures.” (20). Neither Congress nor the Corps paid much attention to alternative approaches common today, such as flood warning systems, flood insurance, flood plain information programs, and procedures to discourage new building development on flood plains.  
The 1936 Flood Control Act identified 50 flood control projects nationwide and Los Angeles County flood control was one of them. Indeed, Los Angeles County received more money than any other project in the nation. An additional $70 million  was provided for Los Angeles County projects, which calculated to almost one-fourth of the total federal expenditures under the act. Although the Corps initially used Eaton’s original comprehensive plan, problems were identified. In December 1936, US Army Major Theodore Wyman submitted his own recommendations for controlling the Los Angeles River. His approach involved construction of 1) debris basins, 2) large flood control basins, and 3) stream channels both deepened and lined with beauteous re-enforced concrete to enable floodwaters to be transported to the ocean as quickly as possible. (21)
Federal flood control work had barely begun when the most damaging flood in the history of Los Angeles County struck in March 1938.

1 comment:

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