As record rainfall inundated Southern California last week, the scene at the mouth of the Los Angeles River in Long Beach was dramatic.
The flow of water was ferocious — some 65,000 cubic feet per second at the terminus of the L.A. River's flood control system. That's like 65,000 basketballs going by, every second, that are filled with water and weigh 62 pounds apiece, said Los Angeles County public works director Mark Pestrella.
Even more impressive was that for all the rain — nearly 9 inches over three days, the second-wettest three-day period on record for downtown Los Angeles since record-keeping began in 1877 — the L.A. River was just at one-third of its capacity.
It could have easily handled a much bigger storm.
All that rain caused scattered, localized mudslides that damaged homes — including one shoved off its foundation — and closed roads.
But L.A. so far has avoided the massive flooding, earth movement, property losses and deaths that came with monster storms of California's past.
It's a reminder that a century of extensive, and at times controversial, public works projects have lessened the flood threat, but not erased it. As climate change brings more extreme weather — drought followed by deluges — Southern California will have to grapple with keeping flood defenses strong while dealing with some of the ecological, sociological and environmental damage the concrete system has caused.
Ghosts of 1938
The fact is that massive, fatal flooding has been a part of life in Southern California — forgotten in dry periods, but always looming as each winter arrives.
And in the last century, none was more deadly and influential on flood control policy than the great storm of 1938.
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