We're Not in Kansas, but We Do Get Twisters

Times Staff Writer

The Southland has had its share of freakish weather conditions.

Snowmen and Palm Trees

On Jan. 15, 1932, as snow and sleet hammered all of California, 2 inches of snow fell in downtown Los Angeles.

The Lark -- the Southern Pacific's first-class sleeper train from San Francisco to Los Angeles -- was unable to get through the heavy snow in San Luis Obispo, stranding many passengers, including California Gov. Friend W. Richardson, who was on his way to a convention in San Bernardino.

It was downtown's first snowfall in more than half a century. But at the time, Angeleno John McKay recalled a snowfall in 1882, the year he arrived in Los Angeles from Ireland, and getting spanked when he ran away from his Alpine Street home to go sledding.

While Chatsworth was buried under 5 inches of snow and smudge pots kept citrus trees from freezing, Caltech's visiting scientist Albert Einstein didn't like it at all, saying he had plenty of the white stuff back home in Germany and came here for sunshine.

While hundreds of snowmen decorated front lawns, the storm provided just enough ammunition for a snowball fight that turned into a riot as 500 overly enthusiastic Pasadena City College students lined both sides of Colorado Boulevard to do battle.

Some rock-filled snowballs cracked the window of a passing streetcar and broke the windshield of a car. Nearly 30 Pasadena police officers, armed with nightsticks and tear gas bombs, arrested seven students for disturbing the peace, while several of the ringleaders deflated the tires of police cars and walked off with ignition keys.

Using a bullhorn, Pasadena City College's dean, Patrick O'Mara, mounted the school steps and shouted "Please remember, you are Pasadena gentlemen."

As 10 spectators and two police officers were being taken away to be treated for minor injuries, two students arrived with fresh truckloads of snow and were forced to deliver it to the city dump.

Snowbound in Laurel Canyon

On Jan. 10, 1949, the sunny Southern California sales pitch that sold train tickets and bungalows and vacant lots by the millions foundered like the Titanic on ice.

In the middle of the worst housing shortage in Los Angeles history, more than half an inch of snow covered the Civic Center.

The San Fernando Valley accumulated almost a foot of snow over three days.

The Rose Bowl was transformed into "a dishpan full of milk," according to one account. An Alhambra hardware store put up a sign that read, "Snow Plows for Rent -- Hurry!"

A snowman appeared in Eagle Rock, wearing a sombrero, and the city of Reno, Nev., sent L.A. a snow shovel.

In a semitropical climate, where January sometimes feels like June, palm-lined boulevards were transformed into winter wonderlands.

Altadena residents turned their evergreen-lined Christmas Tree Lane on snow-swaddled Santa Rosa Avenue into a miniature ski run, and golfers swapped nine irons for snow skis.

Angelenos were forced to exchange their shorts and coconut oil for bulky jackets and gloves as flatland suburbanites scraped ice from windshields and downtown workers cursed the city's hilly terrain.

The rare snowfall produced wondrous vistas and unexpected difficulties, as some motorists besieged with frozen radiators were trapped in their cars in Laurel Canyon for several hours.

Farther north, the engine of crooner Bing Crosby's Cadillac froze near Castroville, and a kind motorist gave him a lift into town.

South L.A. Twister

Southland tornadoes aren't like the ones in Kansas and have never produced enough destruction to merit a scene in a movie such as "Twister." But they have posed a surprisingly real threat from Mother Nature.

In March 1983, a freak twister plowed a path one-third of a mile wide alongside the Harbor Freeway at rush hour, from 51st Street to the southern edge of downtown, tearing roofs from houses, overturning cars, snapping large trees and utility poles, turning debris into missiles and stripping part of the roof from the Los Angeles Convention Center.

More than 150 buildings were destroyed or damaged. Thirty-two people were hurt.

Angeleno Irene Willis was plucked off Broadway in South-Central Los Angeles by a "grayish, blackish swirling ball" that went over the top of the post office. It lifted Willis' Lincoln and dropped it on its wheels.

The windshield was knocked out by a long board that went right through it, past her shoulder and landed in the back seat.

Live power lines fell across her car as the twister moved down the street, but Willis managed to avoid being electrocuted and crawled out.

Some weren't so lucky. A helicopter taking off from a command post in South-Central hit a power line and crashed. Although no one died in the crash, reserve officer Stuart Taira was killed by the rotor blade as he helped an injured companion.

Kansas in Hawthorne

On March 15, 1930, a tornado as ominous as the pitch-black twister that clanged Dorothy into the Land of Oz smacked more than 150 homes in Hawthorne and the communities of Lawndale and Lennox.

Without warning, the tornado tore roofs from homes and buildings, left piles of debris and uprooted trees in its path -- transforming tiny manicured neighborhoods and farmland into a mangled disaster area. Hail, lightning and 2 inches of rain accompanied the tornado. No one was seriously injured.

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