Fallen debris from buildings along Fourth Street following the Long Beach Earthquake on March 10, 1933. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

The Long Beach earthquake rocked this city and others nearby 90 years ago today at 5:54 p.m.

The city at the time wasn’t built like it was expecting such an event, despite the disastrous 1906 quake in San Francisco. Homes were built on substandard foundations; larger buildings, including schools, were built largely with unreinforced masonry that virtually flew off the structures onto cars, streets, sidewalks and the occasional citizen.

Though there was no way of measuring earthquakes aside from anecdotal evidence of its destruction, it was estimated to have been 6.4 on the now-outdated Richter scale, and it killed 120 people and injured thousands more.

There was panic and mayhem for the first few hours as people bolted from their homes, which continued to shake with aftershocks, and stood around outdoors in a daze before gossip of an impending tidal wave sent hundreds scurrying for higher ground atop Signal Hill, where some slept in their cars, while others sat around wide-eyed and witnessed the fires in the city. Some were caused by the quake itself, while others were bonfires that people set in yards, parks, streets and vacant lots throughout the city.

It’s safe to say that Long Beachers didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. Few returned to their homes and instead slept outdoors, jarred awake if they had managed even to fall asleep, by the continuing aftershocks in addition to the mounting worries of each person wondering how they were going to get on with lives and the lives of their children and other family members.

But this isn’t a story about the horrors of the quake or the loss of lives, but rather about how the city rebounded in the few days following the quake.

Among the thoughts of many after the initial terror was a feeling of relief and gratitude about the small mercy of the earthquake’s timing. While survivors even decades later recalled how it had interrupted the evening’s dinner plans, virtually everyone was thankful for the fact that it occurred after school when students had returned home for the day.

Just a few hours earlier, when children were in their classrooms, the death rate would have risen radically and tragically. Thirty-one of the city’s 40 schools were either demolished or battered beyond repair.

Jefferson Junior High School destruction. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library
Jefferson Junior High School destruction. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

The city began rebuilding almost immediately, and former city manager Charles S. Henderson was put in command of the city’s rehabilitation, relief work and reconstruction.

Henderson issued his first public statement on March 12 declaring that removal of debris in the streets had proceeded with amazing rapidity, and within 18 hours of the quake, practically all streets including those in the Downtown business district were cleared.

He added as a warning to would-be morbid opportunists, “Any attempts to profiteer will be met with immediate revocation of city licenses. There has been practically no pillaging, but it is my order to shoot on sight if the occasion demands.”

United States military personnel, armed with rifles, assist with the clean up and guard against problems in the quake aftermath. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

With thousands of residents displaced and rendered homeless by the earthquake, food stations were set up the morning following the disaster. A reporter from the Pasadena Post newspaper wrote, “Bonfires glowed in Lincoln Park. Above the fragrance of flowers and the pungent odor of eucalyptus came the aroma of coffee and the appetizing smell of hot soup.”

“Side by side, smartly attired women and Boy Scouts scraped carrots and peeled potatoes.

Men with sleeves rolled up cut bread for sandwiches and dished soup to a never ending line.

No questions were asked of that line. Every outstretched hand was supplied, whether it was large or small, grimy or daintily manicured.”

The line of hungry survivors stretched around the library in Lincoln Park and from 6 a.m. Saturday, the morning after the quake, until noon, between 10,000 and 15,000 people were served meals under the direction of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army and other volunteers duplicated their efforts at strategically located sites, including the National Guard Armory at Seventh Street and Alamitos Avenue, the Belmont Shore Police Station on Second Street and on Long Beach Boulevard at Plymouth Street in North Long Beach. In Bixby Park, shelter tents, food supplies and general relief corps and kitchen equipment was set up in the streets facing Bixby Park to care for all homeless and needy persons.

Displaced earthquake survivors were fed at area parks. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

Truckloads of carrots and potatoes, along with crates of oranges and baskets of bread came in from relief organizations, and 200 workers were in charge of preparation and distribution. Flowers, too, were brought in and were passed to the Red Cross tents where first aid was given and older and nerve-shaken people rested.

For more serious injuries, an emergency tent area with a team of 26 doctors and 45 nurses worked day and night, treating more than 700 cases ranging from skull fractures to skin lacerations in the first 18 hours. Lighting was provided by movie colonies in Hollywood and Los Angeles.

A good part of the immediate post-quake work was the further destruction of the quake-crippled buildings that were beyond repair and constituted a peril as aftershocks continued to work at crumbling structures, sending masonry crashing to the streets in thundering salvos.

In addition to the efforts of Long Beach’s Fire Department, seven wrecking crews using three power cranes as well as dynamite worked throughout the most heavily damaged parts of the city doing the heavy work, while 3,000 civilian workers on relief payrolls of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation began the tremendous task of clearing thousands of tons of debris from streets.

Maintaining civic order amid the chaos and destruction was a force of 10,000 Navy seamen and Marines from the fleet stationed just offshore, complemented by soldiers from Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. The men led relief expeditions into the city, establishing virtual martial law at the principal centers of destruction, while every available relief and welfare agency was brought into the quake area to provide emergency aid for the injured and homeless thousands.

In subsequent days, the city slowly began to operate somewhat normally, though largely outdoors. Libraries brought reading material outside in the city’s parks, restaurants hauled their cooking equipment outside to prepare meals to outdoor diners, using pieces of wreckage for fires, and school, too, took to the outdoors to conduct classes on their athletic fields and in nearby parks.

The students were, in the days immediately after the earthquake, “on vacation” as the spring break was moved to those days. School resumed on April 10, and while many classes continued to be held outside in “open-air classrooms,” 103 tent houses were erected for junior and senior high school students. To help keep students on track, Long Beach radio stations KFOX and KGER broadcast two supplemental lessons each day.

Willard Elementary School students in their outdoor classroom. Photo courtesy Long Beach Public Library.

The state, too, learned its lessons from the fact that the Long Beach area had dodged the horror of the death and injury of thousands of students.

Just a month after the quake, the California Legislature approved the Field Act after it was determined that the effects of the quake were magnified by the city’s loose subsoil, shoddy workmanship and substandard materials.

The Field Act authorizes the Division of the State Architect to review and approve all public school plans and specifications and to furnish supervision of the construction work.

S​​ince the enforcement of the Field Act, no school has collapsed because of a seismic event, and there has been no loss of life.

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.