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Feature Stories

Long Beach Earthquake of 1933

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 6

By Rebecca Y. Mata

Eighty-one years ago, Long Beach experienced one of its most horrific, earth-shaking disasters. March 10 marked the anniversary of the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933.

This devastating quake was said to be “the greatest catastrophe in the known history of Southern California,” according to Long Beach historian Walter H. Case’s Long Beach Community Book.

It was just before 6 p.m. when the 6.3 magnitude earthquake shook the entire South Bay. In the 10 seconds the quake lasted, whole buildings gave way to the violent, endless thrashing. Dozens of tremors followed, leaving the city in ruin.

That evening, 119 lost their lives throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. Of those, 52 died in Long Beach. In the days that followed, around 500 injured Long Beach residents flooded surviving hospitals and first aid stations, according to the Long Beach Community Book.

The greatest structural damage took place in Long Beach and Compton. Masonry structures, especially schools, were devastated. According to the Western State Seismic Policy Council website, more than 70 schools in Southern California were completely destroyed; more than 100 were seriously damaged. If the earthquake had occurred during school just hours earlier, the number of victims would have been drastically higher.

In a letter to her sister written the following day, Dorothy Lynch, lifelong Long Beach resident, recounted the details of that terrifying evening. “L.B. got it bad,” wrote Lynch. Lynch and her family were in their home when the initial earthquake struck. “We didn’t sleep all night,” noted Lynch. “Just as we would relax another quake would come.”

Eventually, Lynch and her family, including her two small children, left their home and spent the remainder of the night in a car parked in a vacant lot. During the tremors that followed, many residents camped outside in fear of their homes collapsing. Lynch’s letter and other accounts can be viewed at CSUDH library’s department of Archives and Special Collections.

According to the Long Beach Community Book, refugee camps with more than 1,000 tents were set up in Bixby, Recreation, Houghton and Silverado Parks. Relief was provided by organizations like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, who contributed more than $400,000 according to Case’s History of Long Beach.

June Ridgeway, whose written account and photographs were submitted to the department of Archives and Special Collections at CSUDH library, wrote about relief at Lincoln Park in Long Beach. “They run night and day, and never charge a cent; anyone could go and get a meal,” wrote Ridgeway. “They had a wonderful system for relief work.”

According to History of Long Beach, relief also came from a bootlegger who, in exchange for amnesty, donated a truck full of alcohol to doctors for sterilizing their instruments. The Monty Carlo, a nearby gambling ship just off the coast, also provided a soup kitchen that supplied meals for 4,500 people every day.

As a result of the devastation in Southern California caused by the 1933 quake, California implemented the California Earthquake Hazards Mitigation Legislation. According to WSSPC, this legislation includes the Field Act, which established regulations for the structure of schools, including the reinforcement of masonry. Under the Riley Act, all other structures were reformed and new buildings required to meet seismic safety requirements. As a result of these building standards, an earthquake of the same magnitude today would be far less disastrous.