The ‘Big One’ hit Long Beach 86 years ago, and it wasn’t pretty

Long Beachers, like everyone in California, are in a perpetual state of awareness and nervousness about the specter of a major earthquake bringing calamity, havoc and worse to their town.

In fact, the chief reason so many people in Long Beach were so rattled by the recent earthquakes around Ridgecrest last week wasn’t so much the strength of the quake as it was felt here, but the idea that it would grow worse in the seconds after they first hit.

It’s been 86 years now since Long Beach was directly jolted by a major earthquake, and that infamous March 10, 1933 quake, dubbed the Long Beach Earthquake, even though it was centered a bit south of Huntington Beach on the Newport-Inglewood fault, was, at a magnitude of 6.3, less powerful than the July 4 and 5 quakes that struck the sparsely populated Ridgecrest area.

And yet, it was a monster quake that tore up this town. It damaged every one of the 28 schools in the city and destroyed most of them, including Whittier, Lowell, Muir, Burbank and Mann elementary schools, Jefferson, Franklin and Roosevelt junior highs and Poly High.

In Long Beach, 53 people were killed, and that number would’ve been closer to 1,000 had the earthquake struck a couple of hours earlier on that Friday. Following the quake, investigators said that the schools, built at a time before earthquakes had even entered the public’s consciousness in Southern California, were “built like sand castles.”

Instead, most school children were home and preparing for dinner in the minutes before 6 p.m. The town was extra quiet because Downtown shoppers, too, were largely relegated to home because March 10 was deep into the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered a bank “holiday” on that Friday to help calm the run on the banks, so the day’s already-dismal paychecks had gone uncashed.

Even so, homes weren’t necessarily safe havens. Throughout the Southland, 1,803 homes were destroyed. Thousands of residents, continually rattled by the 34 aftershocks in the six hours following the main jolt, slept in their yards, cars and parks that night and for weeks afterward. The city’s main library, too, went al fresco for awhile, and school was held in tents erected near the campuses.

The Navy and the Red Cross served up meals in Lincoln Park and other sites. Quake survivors dashed off letters to newspapers across the country detailing their experience and assuring relatives in other states that they were OK.

In those ancient days, politics moved rapidly and within a month the California Legislature had passed and enacted the Field Act, authorizing the Division of the State Architect to review and approve all public school construction plans.

The quake had claimed 120 fatalities in and around Long Beach, and 4,911 injuries. It was estimated that two-thirds of the deaths and injuries were from people who had dashed outside and were hit by falling bricks and concrete.

The Newport-Inglewood fault line runs from Culver City, through Long Beach, and down to Newport Beach. Researchers have estimated that if the fault launched a 6.8 quake centered in Huntington Beach today, it could result in the injury or death of 15,430, with an economic toll of more than $44 billion.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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