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Hurricane Hilary: Here’s what Southern California news looked like last time a tropical storm made landfall in 1939

Hurricane Hilary: Here’s what Southern California news looked like last time a tropical storm made landfall in 1939

Headlines and stories from the San Pedro News-Pilot in September 1939 chronicled, in real time, the devastation that unfolded the last time a tropical storm made landfall — that time near Long Beach.

“Storm Victim Found at Cabrillo Beach.”

“Furious Storm Wrecks Beach Homes.”

“C.G. Still Hunting 34 Boats – Southland Storm Toll Rises, Coast and Island Coves Searched for Unreported Craft.”

With Southern California under a tropical storm watch, let’s take a look back at the last time such a torrent actually made landfall in the region.

By the time that storm was over, the breakwater and bathhouse in San Pedro were damaged and 93 deaths were reported across Southern California. Forty-five of those died in flooding on land and another 48 were lost at sea. The property damage totaled in the millions of dollars.

Numerous stories posted on The California Digital Newspaper Collection website tell the story of the devastation from that tropical storm, nicknamed El Cordonazo, or The Lash of St. Francis.

One Sept. 27, 1939, an opinion column from the now-defunct San Pedro paper started this way:

“First it was the war. Then the heat. Then the storm. The storm, a big local story, took the play away from the European fighting. As a matter of fact, news emanating from the European war front Monday and Tuesday was secondary stuff, as metropolitan dailies devoted page after page to pictures and news stories of the storm.”

A San Diego Union Tribute report described it this way:

“Whistling winds and driving rain of a tropical storm which disrupted wire utilities, halted Santa Fe trains service at San Clemente, started run-off into reservoirs and piled debris in streets and alleys, died to a murmur last night after a new September wind record was set.”

It was, the article said, “the worst September windstorm in San Diego’s history.”

The possible storm coming this way over the weekend remains somewhat unpredictable — but is expected to bring some significant rainfall.

Advisories have gone out to both the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and residents are being advised to stay away from the coastline.

Looking back, there seems to be a greatest-hits list of storms that have hit California.

One that isn’t listed, though, was a blast of winds and surf that Curtiss Eckhardt of Denver, Colorado, recalls in the 1950s, when his family had moved to Redondo Beach from South Dakota.

He was about 7 years old and he recalls standing near the beach in Redondo as the tempest raged.

“It was just after we’d moved there, in 1953 or 1952,” Eckhardt said in a phone interview on Friday, Aug. 18.

The wind was whistling, he said, and “pitched rocks up from the shore into buildings along the water. They looked as big as cantelopes. and we had to stand back.”

While he didn’t recall any rain, he does remember a “huge wind” and raging surf. They were pelted by spray from the ocean.

“Dad was pretty cautious, but we got to stand there and watch for a while; it was just like one of those 3D movies, just the pieces (of debris) flying,” he said. “There was one building, about 3 stories tall, and the back and side of it were just battered to pieces.”

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More recently, in September 1997, Tropical Storm Nora brought hectic conditions to the state, with flooding in Seal Beach.

Others on record include:

An 1858 storm that hit San Diego and later was determined to probably have been a Category 1 hurricane, causing heavy rain in L.A. and damaging a wharf in San Pedro.
The 1939 storm that made a direct hit at San Pedro and brought heavy rains and flooding.
The tropical storm named Kathleen that hit Baja California on Sept. 9, 1976, and crossed into California with winds above 39-mph and a deluge of rain.

For now, the Southern California coastline — as well as areas inland — are bracing for a possible new chapter in the state’s storm history, when the remnants of Hurricane Hilary could also turn toward land and come ashore as a tropical storm.

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