Flood of Memories : Longtime Valley Residents Recall 1938 Deluge That Took 87 Lives, Did $78 Million in Damage

Times Staff Writer

Sylvia Blankfort doesn’t remember exactly when the rain began.

She just remembers that it continued for days, and by the time it ended much of the San Fernando Valley was crisscrossed by dirty swaths of water and many homes had been damaged.

She remembers a motorist trapped under mud in the Big Tujunga Wash, and she remembers that he died.


As the 50th anniversary of those great floods of late February and early March, 1938, approached, Blankfort dug into the jumble of photos she keeps in a drawer in her husband’s bureau and pulled out five black-and-white mementos of the storm that took 87 lives and caused about $78 million in damage in Southern California.

Crumbled Earth, Cracked Walls

One of Blankfort’s photographs shows the earth beneath Riverside Drive near Whitsett Avenue in North Hollywood crumbling, exposing a septic tank and flimsy, twisted pipes. Another shows a Jeep half-submerged in the mud of a drying wash and another is of the interior of a battered home, its wooden floors buckled, its walls cracked.

“It was quite an exciting time,” Blankfort, 79, recalled from her Studio City home. “The water was so deep, my husband went out on a rowboat to rescue people who had broken through their rooftops.”

The Blankforts’ North Hollywood home, situated on an incline on Addison Street, was in a safer area. The whirling water only reached the top of the curb.

But she and her husband, Henry, now 85, and their two children were forced to live in relatively rough conditions for several days, and Henry Blankfort had to navigate the rain-drenched streets to make his way to the market for food.

“For three days, we had no electricity; we had no water,” the spindly, gray-haired Sylvia Blankfort said. “We had no gas. We cooked everything in the fireplace--bacon and eggs and coffee. . . . How primitive it was. . . .”

In Los Angeles, 1,500 homes were declared uninhabitable because of the raging waters. In Riverside, the Santa Ana River jumped its man-made banks, killing 15 people. In Long Beach, a wooden bridge spanning the mouth of the Los Angeles River disintegrated, killing at least 10 others.

Recovery Took Months

The deluge that began Feb. 27, 1938, lasted only four days, but the recovery took months.

In the Valley, the downpour toppled two 110,000-volt power lines in the Big Tujunga Wash. Floodwaters broke over the levee of the Tujunga Wash, and the Los Angeles River, which coursed between dirt banks then, broke out of its channel near Warner Brothers in Burbank and ruined several sets.

The storm was “by far . . . the worst in this century,” said Kenyon DeVore, 76, an Arcadia resident who worked for more than 30 years for the county Flood Control District and the county Department of Public Works.

At the time of the floods, DeVore worked in an eastern canyon of the San Gabriel Valley, while his family ran a mountain lodge in a canyon north of Mt. Wilson.

The floods, DeVore recalled, “cut roads and railroads all over Southern California. The whole damn valley was a mess. I myself saw houses destroyed in the area. I watched automobiles bobbing like corks downstream. . . . It was a horrible flood, tremendously destructive.”

Rainfall ranged between 7.74 inches on the San Fernando Valley floor to 28.58 inches in mountain areas, according to a report by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Rains Saturated Hillsides

There were substantial but intermittent amounts of rainfall on Feb. 27 and 28, followed by virtually no rainfall on March 1, then intense storms on March 2. Intermittent and light rainfall continued until March 10.

But, by March 2, the soil in mountain and hillside areas had already been saturated, and the rain flowed into washes and outlying basins that filled quickly before spilling into the lower-lying areas.

“In most of the areas it was the heaviest rainfall experienced in many years,” the Interior Department report said, and, because it was so fierce, many stream-gauging stations “were destroyed or so badly damaged that no record” was available.

The rains of 1938 were severe enough to be rated a “50-year storm,” said Don Nichols, chief of the hydraulic division of the county Department of Public Works. Such a storm is so severe that, true to its name, it is likely to occur in an area only twice a century.

Experts took steps to make sure the destruction would never occur again. The county Flood Control District constructed hundreds of miles of storm channels to absorb what storm drains and washes at the time could not contain. Engineers designed the channels to be able to handle another 50-year storm, Nichols said.

“The San Gabriel River, the Dominguez Channel, the Los Angeles River, the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena--there are 500 miles of major channel all of which were designed for a 50-year storm. Ninety percent of it was built after 1938,” Nichols said.

A Model Disaster

Nichols said engineers estimated how much water the drains should hold at the peak of a 50-year storm, using the 1938 disaster as a model.

Sylvia Blankfort had only recently moved from New York when those long-ago rains began.

She remembers how she and her husband planned to plop their two children on the fireplace mantel if the rainwater reached their home.

“It must have come late in the afternoon, because people who went into town shopping couldn’t get back to their houses here,” she recalled. “They wouldn’t let any cars through. People who lived here were marooned. You couldn’t leave the area. . . . When it happened, it was all at once.”

Once the water subsided, she ventured outside and snapped some pictures to record the event.

“I’m a person who saves,” she said. “I have all these photos. It’s wonderful to look back and see things.”