10 Real-Life Los Angeles Disasters That Remind Us We Should Always Try to be Prepared

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Los Angeles is such a popular target for disaster movies (ahem: San Andreas opening this weekend) that it mutes many of the catastrophes that have plagued our region over the past century. Unfortunately, the southland has faced its share of misfortunes, not one more tragic than the next.

Rather than sensationalize these for pure spectacle, we thought it would be wise to recall them as a sort of call-to-action to make sure we’re on the ready when the next disaster comes our way. You never know when disaster might strike, but there’s actually a lot you can do to prepare yourself.


Here’s a short list worth remembering, if for any reason so that it may keep us prepared to make it through challenges (natural or man-made) that may be thrown our way in the future.

Rundown starts after the jump.

St Francis Dam

William Mulholland may best be remembered for bringing water to the city of Los Angeles, but he was also responsible for the biggest disaster in the area’s history. The St. Francis Dam collected water from the Owens Valley before reaching the city, but was always wrought with leaks. A dam keeper brought a new break to Mulholland’s attention the morning of March 12, 1928, but deemed the structure safe. The dam broke just before midnight taking the lives of 600 unsuspecting residents as the water washed out towns into the Pacific Ocean. The remains of the structure were detonated the following year after a child fell to his death when a friend threw a dead rattlesnake at him. It was later discovered that the failure of the dam could not have been predicted with the technology of the time.


Long Beach Quake

The first major recorded earthquake in southern California history happened in 1769, but the next big tremor didn’t occur for another 164 years! During dinner time on March 10, 1933, a 6.4 magnitude quake trembled just off the shore of Huntington Beach. While building standards were improved after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, 120 people died mostly from being hit by debris as they fled their shaking buildings. The state recognized that the death toll would have been much higher had children been in classes, so a month later the Field Act was passed requiring all school structures to be built earthquake resistant.

Sylmar Quake

As the San Fernando Valley was entering the salad days of suburbanization, paradise was lost on the morning of February 9, 1971 as a 6.5 earthquake shook the region. Although centered in the Santa Clarita Valley, most of the destruction took place on the south side of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The tremor caused severe damage to the Olive View Medical Center and Veterans Hospital. It also affected a great deal of freeway infrastructure causing the Newhall Pass interchange to collapse. In all, the quake killed 64 people and caused a half billion dollars of damage, prompting the city to set tougher building regulations, which also led to the bland skyline of downtown Los Angeles.

Flood of 1938

While too much water is not a problem that afflicts us now, in 1938 Los Angeles received its worst flooding due to heavy rains and poor infrastructure. The area received five straight days of rainfall causing the Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Gabriel Rivers to overflow which wiped out roads, bridges and buildings. Without flood control dams in place, The Santa Ana River alone swelled to a flow of some 317,000 cubic feet of water per second (nearly half the size of the Mississippi!)

Over 5,000 structures were destroyed and 115 people lost their lives from the devastation. Later that year, work started on the Los Angeles River transforming it the cold concrete channel we see today.

Stratford Apartment Fire

The worst fire catastrophe in Los Angeles history happened in more modern times at the Stratford Apartments in the Westlake District on November 15, 1973. Flames erupted from a lobby sofa that quickly spread throughout the 64 year old structure. The open stairwells created an inferno and cut off circulation causing 25 people to perish with another 52 injured. Safety doors in stairwells were required after the fatal Ponet Square Fire of 1970, but the Stratford Apartments were not up to that standard.

Cerritos Crash

Unfortunately, Los Angeles has had its share of airplane crashes over time, but the worst happened in 1986 as an AeroMexico jet was making its final approach into LAX. A small plane was heading from Torrance to Big Bear when it entered the AeroMexico’s path without the proper clearance.


A mid-air collision occurred sending both jets down into the community of Cerritos. A total of 82 people died, including all 64 from the airline and three from the passenger plane perishing. The crash also killed another fifteen people on the ground. In 2006, the city of Cerritos erected a monument honoring all involved in the collision.

Northridge Earthquake

Even as building standards improved after the Sylmar Earthquake, we fatefully learned about their effectiveness twenty three years later. On January 17, 1994, the region was woken up to a 6.7 tremor that killed 57 people. Known as the Northridge Earthquake because of the extensive damage to the area, the epicenter was actually in Reseda. Images of the collapsed Northridge Fashion Center, CSUN and Northridge Meadows apartment building quickly spread across the nation. The freeways were affected again, as the Newhall Pass failed a second time and a section of the I10 collapsed twenty miles away. It was concluded that the previous regulations were not strict or enforced enough. Earthquake standards were toughened again, but only time will tell.

Pile up on the 710

On a November Sunday morning in 2002, motorists heading southbound on the 710 Freeway encountered a fog bank creating the biggest car collision in California history. Drivers passing Del Amo Blvd. had lost visibility to the point that it formed three separate pile ups involving 216 vehicles. Forty one people were reported injured, but the most amazing statistic was no life lost among all the damage.

Heat Wave

If you live in Southern California, you love the heat, but even in certain circumstances it becomes too extreme to handle. For six weeks spanning July and August of 2006, North America had what what was perhaps its most severe heat wave in our country’s history affecting California the most. There were continuous days where the temperature stayed above 100F with it peaking at 119F in Woodland Hills, setting a new record for Los Angeles County. A significant number of people were left without power forcing many to brave the elements without air conditioning. The death toll across the state is estimated to be above 163, as coroners had trouble processing the volume at the time.

Chatsworth Train Collision

Coming back on train from San Luis Obispo on Labor Day weekend in 2008, my wife asked me why we were stopped for an extended amount of time in Fillmore. I replied was that since there was only a single track through the Chatsworth tunnel, that trains paused knowing when to wait to let others pass. A week later, the worst tragedy in Metrolink history happened when an engineer missed a stop signal and collided with a freight train killing 25 and injuring another 135. The devastation was so severe, that the emergency responders set up a morgue on site. The engineer, who was killed instantly, was exchanging text messages with a train enthusiast right before the collision.


The Takeaway…

Whether it’s earthquakes (a lot of those on the list), heatwaves, floods, crashes, being prepared for a natural disaster is critical to mitigating the damage it can do.

A great place to start is with an earthquake / emergency kit, and we’ve previously put together a list of items that you should have on hand for such a kit. Also, keep in mind there are entire organizations and websites (like readyla.org and cert-la.org) that provide guidelines, recommended precautions and protocols, and community response training for when disasters occur.

While you can’t predict the future, remember the old John Wooden maxim: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Take care!


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