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What We Can Learn From Southern California's 1939 Tropical Storm

Sunday's tropical cyclone, the one-time category-4 Hurricane Hilary, drenched Southern California and the West with record-breaking rainfall. And a 5.1 earthquake was thrown in to shake things up. Most of us never heard of the September 25, 1939 storm until this past weekend, when it was referenced as the last tropical cyclone to hit Southern California 84 years ago.

As family history researchers, it's fascinating (and somewhat horrifying) to see how local newspapers back then covered the disaster. Dubbed El Cordonazo (the lash of St. Francis), the storm caused heavy flooding, and about 100 people died—half on land, half at sea. People were caught off guard without the technology and warning systems in place today. Reporters dramatically described the disaster, focusing on stories of survivors and those who perished. One newspaper called those who died at sea "pleasure seekers".

From the Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1939, morning edition:

A southwest squall overturned the Spray as she returned to the Point Magu fishing camp from Anacapa Island at 6 p.m. Tremendous ground swells immediately tore away the pilot house where 24 of the 26 persons aboard were believed to be huddled.

Abe Agins, Warner Bros. paint set foreman of 1420 Maltman St., said, "Someone pushed a life preserver at me in a hold and somehow I got out safely. I felt a terrific jar when the boat hit the shore but I didn't know what had happened."

Miss Genevieve Force of 2617 112th St., Lynwood, the other survivor, leaped overboard from the after deck to safety. She and Agins were taken to the Lying-In Hospital in Oxnard with multiple bruises and lacerations.

Sheriff Howard Durley expressed no hope for the 24 missing. He said the squall wrecked three buildings in the fishing camp, destroyed the wharf, and swept away a bridge from the mainland across a lagoon to the camp.

With breaking news, editors often didn't have time to check facts and approve stories before newspapers were published. This urgency resulted in the names of the missing being printed before families were notified and sources not always

being verified. From accounts like this, researchers can find out the names and occupations of victims and survivors, along with their addresses. In an era when privacy is threatened, the concept of publishing someone's name and address is startling. But back then, there was more of a concern of misidentification and possible libel—reporting that the Hal Jones of 215 Mayberry Lane in Santa Monica was arrested rather than the Hal Jones of 5105 Happy Lark Terrace in Burbank. Getting the facts, all the facts, were more important than the privacy and safety of an individual.

A couple of silver linings from the 1939 weather catastrophe: it ended the previous week's grueling heatwave, in which an estimated 90 Southlanders died after more than a week of "torrid temperatures." Citrus ranchers were thrilled by the powerful rains, which they believed would save groves of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and other citrus after that dry spell. Walnut ranchers were grateful the storm stripped their trees of nuts, saving time and labor costs.

"Storm hailed as 'million dollar rain', Anaheim" Anaheim Bulletin, September 25, 1939.

"29 victims believed aboard the spray in 1939 so cal storm" The Los Angeles Times, September 25, 1939.

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