Much more than a large swath of Southern California landscape was shaken in the space of 10 seconds on that evening in March 90 years ago.
A month on the day after the 1933 Long Beach earthquakeCalifornia legislature and governor, acting with a speed born of voter panic and anger, passed the Field Act, which mandated rigid building codes, as well as inspections for public schools.
Why the rush?
About 120 people died from the March 10 earthquake — the deadliest ever recorded in Southern California, the deadliest after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Yet this earthquake is called a “lucky one”. Fortunately, it hit at 5:54 p.m. on a Friday, when most people were home for dinner or headed there. Three hours earlier, thousands of students would have been killed or injured within the walls of the 230 schools that had collapsed, been damaged or become too dangerous to enter.
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Thousands of other civic buildings—city halls, hospitals, theaters, libraries—and 20,000 homes from Newport Beach and Santa Ana to most of southern Los Angeles County were flattened or severely razed.
Soon Caltech’s president, Robert A. Millikan, was appointed head of a technical committee to investigate construction defects. He signed up his summary three months later that in cities where the earthquake was strongest, damage to schools was severe and widespread: “Aulas collapsed, walls were knocked down and even the exits to safety were piled high with debris that was a few moments before heavy parts of towers and ornamental entrances. It is enough to suggest the dire consequences if the same earthquake had happened a few hours earlier.”
The Field Act was a striking new kind of law in a laissez-faire state. Over time, more laws were added, such as the Garrison and Green acts — the first extending rigid codes to existing schools, not just new ones, and the other saying “we really, really mean it” — and by local regulations to prevent public and private buildings from becoming death traps. Compliance was still lacking into the 1960s, but during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, schools built strictly to Field Act codes had virtually no damage other than broken light bulbs and overturned furniture.
The vast majority of buildings that collapsed in 1933 were made of brick. The piles of decaying stones in the streets of Long Beach took laborious weeks to clear. As late as the 1980s, many California cities still had to require their existing brick buildings to be seismically modified—and in some cases, not by their own rules.
In 1933, most of the 120 killed, including a Long Beach firefighter, were killed by these falling rocks and by unreinforced masonry.
Walls fell all over Long Beach, leaving the buildings open and exposed like dollhouses. At a hospital in Long Beach, patients were wheeled onto the lawn after the front wall of the hospital collapsed. Five firefighters were trapped when the facade of their main building collapsed.
The United States Navy, with a formidable presence off Long Beach, sent 2,000 uniformed men ashore to patrol the streets and stop looters. The Pope expressed his condolences. The Times-Universal Newsreel shot thousands of yards of film of the devastation.
Tens of thousands of people left their homes. They slept on their own lawns or in parks, and in the cold March air, some ended up with pneumonia in already overcrowded hospitals. Dozens of Long Beach families drove into the hills south of Monterey Park to sleep in the open air. A circus tent was set up to protect them and the American Legion began cooking meals for them. Rumors of a tidal wave sent people to higher ground. March Field, the military base in Riverside County, sent a rolling field kitchen with six cooks. The Los Angeles Milk Arbitration Board donated 11,200 gallons of milk to homeless families in Compton, Long Beach and Huntington Park.
Seconds before the ground began to heave, a 15-year-old Long Beach girl named Bea Criswell was getting dressed in her upstairs bedroom, sulking about having to go out to dinner with her parents, and she said to herself, “Please “Lord, do something so I don’t have to go out to dinner!” For years afterward, she felt that the earthquake was somehow her fault.
The magnitude has now been calculated at 6.4, but the Richter scale had yet to be created. Instead, seismologists relied on a Roman numeral-based Mercalli scale that depended on subjective assessments, such as how many objects were damaged and how people reacted.
About a year before the Long Beach earthquake, Carnegie’s seismology lab in Pasadena had received funding for a first-ever catalog of earthquakes in Southern California. In the hours and days following the quake, the lab’s seismologist, Harry O. Wood, and a newcomer named Charles Richter headed to Long Beach to check the seismic data. “I grabbed my portable instruments and assembled a team to monitor the shocks. Some of them went on for a long time,” Richter told The Times on the 50th of the earthquakee birthday.
“The 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake got people talking about building codes,” said seismologist Lucy Jones, founder and chief scientist of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, “but it was the 1933 earthquake that got us there.” The 1933 earthquake spawned the first rules requiring buildings to be bolted to foundations — something not adopted by any jurisdiction until 1960, she said.
What then emerged after the Long Beach earthquake was “the whole philosophy that there’s a role for government to prevent you from building a building that’s going to kill people — that really grew out of that earthquake.”
The first map of the San Andreas Fault came after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Long Beach earthquake made people realize that “earthquakes are not a one-time event,” she explained. “They are a hallmark of California.” The 1933 earthquake, centered off the coast of Huntington Beach, revealed the existence of the Newport-Inglewood strike-slip fault, and a new realization “that there’s more than one rupture here, that there’s not just one San Andreas rupture was just a seismic system … that expands our picture of what to worry about,” Jones said.
In 2016, a pair of U.S. Geological Survey seismologists who had studied old oil drilling data suggested in a publication that four earthquakes struck the Southern California oil coast region in the first third of the 20e century – including Long Beach’s – may have been caused by incessant oil extraction. I asked Jones about that.
“At the moment there is no general consensus yet. It’s almost impossible to sit here in the 21st century and look back and see the impact the drilling had,” Jones said.
“It was very clear that the oil extraction around Long Beach was causing a lot of damage. Long Beach was sinking yards,” she noted. “And sometime in the 1940s, in Signal Hill, the roof of an oil reservoir collapsed (where) they had taken so much away.” After that, she pointed out, California required that “when you took liquid out, you had to put liquid back in — a net-zero liquid extraction process.” In addition, “there is ample evidence of the Newport-Inglewood Fault before humans were here.”
Two years after the Long Beach earthquake, Richter published his and his colleague and mentor Beno Gutenberg’s research and the idea of a numerical scale to rate the “magnitude” of earthquakes. The objective, base-10 logarithmic system of the scale caught on, and although it is obsolete, people still attach its name to the scale. In recent years, people would sometimes show up at Caltech to see this famous scale of his.
Richter was quite the character. His family moved here when he was 7 years old, and he felt his first earthquake at age 10. He kept a seismograph in the living room of his home in Altadena and answered reporters’ calls at all hours of the night. He did not drive and was a committed backpacker and vegetarian. He was also a nudist – the genteel synonym then was ‘naturist’.
He bequeathed his scientific files to Caltech, but his personal diaries, books, home videos, notes, stamp collections, and letters filled floor-to-ceiling bookcases bolted into place in his cousin’s Granada Hills home.
In 1994, eight years after Richter died, the entire collection became nothing more than ashes and mud after a fire in the house next door jumped to the cousin’s house.
The fire was started by the Northridge earthquake.