History of Orange County

Orange Co.’s earth-shaking terror of ’33

Rebuilding at Anaheim High School after 1933 quake.

Rebuilding at Anaheim High School after 1933 quake.

By Jim Tortolano

September is the national Disaster Awareness Month, and in California the mishap we fear most is the earthquake.

Out-of-staters are especially terrified of the prospect, which is understandable. Hurricanes, blizzards, even fires can be foreseen somewhat, and fled or prepared for. The sudden shaking of terra firma (usually) carries no warnings and the effects can range from a few broken dishes to catastrophic, even fatal damage.

In Orange County, the worst such tectonic terror offered on March 10, 1933 at 5:54 p.m. Although commonly referred to as the Long Beach Earthquake, the temblor caused damage throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties, and is generally believed to have originated closer to Huntington or Newport beaches.

As a matter of fact, the quake did give a bit of advance notice. A foreshock hit that Huntington on March 9. The next day would see Mother Nature unleash her fury. Just as Orange Countians were sitting down to dinner (or about to), a 6.4 quake ripped through the Newport-Inglewood fault, up to 10 miles deep into the ground.

Almost immediately, buildings began to collapse. Many structures of the time were of stone or unreinforced masonry (typically bricks and mortar with no steel skeleton) and the lateral-shaking motion of the plates of bedrock tore those dwellings, schools and places of business apart.

A total of 120 people were killed in the quake and its aftermath, with much of the damage occurring in Long Beach and Compton. But Orange County, with much less population density, had its share of death and damage. Four people were killed locally, and many buildings crushed.

Santa Ana High before the 1933 quake.

Santa Ana High before the 1933 quake.

Three of the deaths occurred in Santa Ana. A husband and wife were killed when they ran out of a hotel and were struck by falling debris. A man walking by a different hotel was hit by a falling stone cornice and fatally injured.

In Garden Grove, a freshman student at Garden Grove Union High School was crushed by a falling wall. Two other students were injured. “All of a sudden, it [the school cafeteria] started shaking,” recalled Donita Jordan Reynolds. “And we all started to run. Things fell out of lockers. We ran outside. Something falling from the building hit the back of my head. “Falling debris killed Elizabeth Pollard four feet from where I’d fallen,” she added. “Another girl was also hit. As I lay on the steps, something told me I was going to die. I thought, ‘No, I’m going to get out of here.’ I went down the steps to the lawn and passed out.”

The main business centers in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana were severely damaged. In Newport Beach, hundreds of chimneys were snapped off. In Huntington Beach steel oil derricks were damaged.

To make matters worse, a heavy fog in some areas made rescue work difficult. In both counties, communities with high water tables suffered from “liquefaction.” Underground water mixed with the landfill above and turned into squishy mud, making some highways and bridges unusable.

Many schools were damaged or destroyed. At Anaheim High School, the wooden building containing administration and an auditorium was so severely damaged, it was completely replaced.

At Garden Grove High, the two-story main classroom building (where Elizabeth Pollard was killed) was so badly handled that it had to be torn down to its foundation and rebuilt.

Santa Ana High was so damaged it was torn down more or less completely and reconstructed. Tustin Elementary School similarly had to be started over.

Despite the tragedy, local residents showed considerable resilience. Residents banded together to help each other and help clear rubble. In some communities, the tragedy had a bright side; unsafe and unattractive buildings were replaced with sounder construction.

A few of the unreinforced masonry buildings from that era still stand, despite state and local government efforts to eliminate them. While retrofitting the old structures make them safer, they’re still not quite as stout as structures built completely to modern standards.

Sitting along an already-notorious fault, Orange County would face serious problems when the next Big One hits. We’re better equipped to handle it now that we were in 1933. But as was the case four generations ago, complacency can make the difference, literally, between life and death.

Want information on how to be prepared in case of a quake? Go to this link: http://www.ready.gov/september

Sources: Wikipedia, anaheimcolony.com, Garden Grove Journal, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, “The New Deal in Orange County,” by Charles Epting.

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