By Stan Poe
June 1st marked the official opening of "hurricane season" in the United States. In "honor" of the occasion, NBC news decided to air a segment on the only hurricane known to have hit the West Coast. Someone referred Pablo Pereira to me and the night before our filming found me pouring over copies of the Long Beach Independent and the Bel-na-mos newspapers for first hand coverage of the event. It actually occurred on September 25th, 1939. The preceding week was unseasonably hot. In the triple digits, it was the hottest period since 1877. The heat wave resulted in four deaths in the city and school being dismissed at noon that Friday. The weather report predicted "occasional cloudiness, but no showers" for that weekend.
The hurricane arrived in full force on Sunday, September 25th following a drenching rain. Quite a few boats had actually gone out in the morning from Newport Harbor and San Pedro. The entire Southern California coast was affected from San Diego north to San Pedro. The official death toll was thirty-nine, but only four from Long Beach died, two boys who went swimming at Brighton Beach on Terminal Island and a mother and son from Belmont Heights who were sailing and lashed themselves to the mast before the boat foundered.
Fifty homes were destroyed in the area from Belmont Pier to 55th Place. Many were cottages, but some were more substantial such as the home of Vivian Laird, the famed restauranteur. Houses beyond 55th Place were protected by a mighty wooden bulkhead along the boardwalk which was installed in the 1920s. The majority of homes lost were on either side of Ocean including almost all of them in the 5400 block (from Bayshore to 55th). Those oceanside lots were created in the 1880s and were 25' by 200', extending to the surfline presenting an irregular footprint so the bulkhead and boardwalk could not extend to the west of 55th Place.
One grand home was saved by a pile of debris left by the backwash, topped by a twenty foot stone tower which washed across the road and stuck in the debris! Damage downtown included business along the Pike and the pilings of Rainbow Pier. Water and waves topped the bluffs along Ocean Blvd. which severely eroded them and reduced the size of the park.
At one point in time, the 5400 block had been an opening to the sea for the San Gabriel River, and it was feared that with so much sand eroded, it would revert to being a river outlet separating the peninsula from Belmont Shore. The Pacific Electric tracks were washed out and martial law enforced. Relentless waves undermined the beach and houses so severely that the Monday morning tide crumbled most of what had survived the initial onslaught. A few homes built on pilings survived, but the disaster spurred the city to acquire all of the land from Belmont Pier to 55th Place, although five homes did manage to win a battle with the city and survive to this day.
The logical solution would have been to extend the boardwalk, let the homeowners keep part of their property, and extend the bulkhead. But logic seemed not to prevail and as a result, the city adds millions of cubic yards of sand to the beach to replenish that part lost to erosion.
Could there be another disaster of this type? Probably not as long as the government breakwater exists. In addition, there are much more sophisticated storm tracking procedures to give ample warning. The storm of 1939 wasn't noticed until it reached San Diego because there were no shipping lanes south of San Diego at that time. It had begun around the Equator and never blew out to sea.
The program aired on NBC on June 1st and created an awareness of the vulnerability of our seacoast.