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1939 California tropical storm

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1939 California tropical storm
Category 1 hurricane (SSHWS/NWS)
1939 California storm.jpg
Storm path
FormedSeptember 15, 1939 (1939-09-15)
DissipatedSeptember 25, 1939 (1939-09-26)
Highest winds1-minute sustained: 75 mph (120 km/h)
Lowest pressure971 mbar (hPa); 28.67 inHg
Fatalities45–93 direct
Damage$2 million (1939 USD)
Areas affectedSouthern California, northwestern Mexico
Part of the 1939 Pacific hurricane season

The 1939 California tropical storm, also known as the 1939 Long Beach tropical storm, and El Cordonazo, was a tropical cyclone that affected Southern California in September 1939. Formerly a hurricane,[1] it was the only tropical storm to make landfall in California in the twentieth century. Fisherman in the villages along the Mexican coast have named these storms, the Lash of St. Francis. The only other known tropical cyclone to directly affect California at tropical storm intensity or higher is the 1858 San Diego hurricane (though it did not make landfall), and only three other eastern Pacific tropical cyclones have produced gale-force winds in the continental United States.[2] The tropical storm caused heavy flooding, leaving many dead, mostly at sea.[1]

Meteorological synopsis[edit]

On September 15, a tropical depression formed off the southern coast of Central America.[3] It moved west-northwestward, passing southwest of the Revillagigedo Islands. It then turned north and then northeastward.[3] For some time, it was a hurricane, and it lost that intensity on or just before September 25.[1] The tropical storm made landfall near San Pedro, California, early on September 25,[1] with winds of severe gale strength. It dissipated later that day.[3] The strongest reported sustained wind was of Force 11 strength, which was reported by a ship, making this system a minimal hurricane. The lowest pressure was reported by the same ship, and was at 28.67 inHg (971 mb).[3]

Due to the rotation of the Earth, tropical cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere tend to move from east to west. This causes tropical cyclones to approach the West Coast of the United States infrequently. Another inhibiting factor for a California landfall is the surrounding water temperatures. Because of the water currents, the waters off the coast of California are rarely above 70 °F (21 °C), which is too cold for hurricanes to sustain themselves.[4] This tropical cyclone was rare enough that only three other eastern Pacific tropical cyclones brought tropical storm-force winds to the Continental United States during the twentieth century. The Long Beach Tropical Storm was the only one to make landfall; the other three hit Mexico before moving north, but didn't make landfall in California.[2]

Preparations and impact[edit]

Map of California

The storm dropped heavy rain in California, with 5.66 inches (144 mm) falling in Los Angeles (5.24 inches or 133 millimetres in 24 hours) and 11.60 inches (295 mm) recorded at Mount Wilson, both September records. Over three hours, one thunderstorm dropped nearly 7 inches (180 mm) of rain on Indio. 9.65 inches (245 mm) fell on Raywood Flat, and 1.51 inches (38 mm) on Palm Springs.[1] 4.83 inches (123 mm) fell on Pasadena, a September record at the time. At the Citrus Belt near Anaheim, at least 4.63 inches (118 mm) of rain fell. The 11.60 inches (295 mm) at Mount Wilson is one of California's highest rainfall amounts from a tropical cyclone, although at least one system has a higher point maximum.[5] The rains caused a flood 2 to 4 feet (0.6 to 1.2 m)[6] deep in the Coachella Valley with heavy rain immediately preceding the tropical storm dropping 6.45 inches (164 mm) the day before the storm hit.[1] The Los Angeles River, which was usually low during September, became a raging torrent.[6]

With heavy rain immediately preceding the tropical storm, flooding killed 45 in Southern California.[7] At sea, 48 were killed.[1] However, the National Hurricane Center only attributes 45 deaths to this system.[8] Six people caught on beaches drowned during the storm. Most other deaths were at sea. Twenty-four died aboard a vessel called the Spray as it attempted to dock at Point Mugu. The two survivors, a man and a woman, swam ashore and then walked five miles (8 km) to Oxnard. Fifteen people from Ventura drowned aboard a fishing boat named Lur. Many other vessels were sunk, capsized, or blown ashore.[6]

Many low-lying areas were flooded. The Hamilton Bowl overflowed, flooding the Signal Hill area. Along the shore from Malibu to Huntington Beach houses were flooded. Throughout the area, thousands of people were stranded in their homes. Streets in Los Angeles proper were covered with water, flooding buildings and stalling cars. Flooding in Inglewood and Los Angeles reached a depth of 2 to 3 feet (0.61 to 0.91 m). Construction on a flood control project in the Los Angeles River's channel by the Army Corps of Engineers was stopped by the flooding. Windows throughout Long Beach were smashed by the wind. At Belmont Shore, waves undermined ten homes before washing them away. Debris was scattered throughout the coast. Agriculture was disrupted. Crop damage in the Coachella Valley reached 75%.[6]

Rains washed away a 150-foot (46 m) section of the Southern Pacific Railroad near Indio, and a stretch of the Santa Fe main line near Needles. Waters backing up from a storm drain under construction in the Santa Monica Valley blocked U.S. Route 60. The pier at Point Mugu was washed away. In Pasadena, 5000 people were left without electricity and 2000 telephones lost service. Communications throughout the affected area was disrupted or rendered impossible.[6] The total amount of damage was $2 million (1939 USD,[3] $37 million in 2019 USD).

The tropical storm was credited with at least one beneficial effect: it ended a vicious heat wave that had lasted for over a week and killed at least 90 people.[9]

People were caught unprepared by the storm,[1] which was described as "sudden". Some people were still on the beach at Long Beach when the wind reached 40 mph (64 km/h; 35 kn), at which time lifeguards closed the beach. Schools were closed there. At sea, the Coast Guard and Navy conducted rescue operations, saving dozens of people.[6] In response to Californians' unpreparedness, the Weather Bureau established a forecast office for southern California, which began operations in February 1940.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "A History of Significant Local Weather Events" (PDF). National Weather Service Forecast Office San Diego, California. p. 10. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-02-29. Retrieved 2007-02-02.
  2. ^ a b Michael Chenowyth; Chris Landsea. "The San Diego Hurricane of October 2, 1858" (PDF). Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. pp. 1698–97. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
  3. ^ a b c d e Willis E. Hurd (September 1939). "North Pacific Ocean, September 1939" (PDF). Monthly Weather Review. pp. 357–8. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-18.
  4. ^ Chris Landsea. "Subject: G8) Why do hurricanes hit the East coast of the U.S., but never the West coast?". FAQ. National Hurricane Center. Archived from the original on 14 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-08.
  5. ^ Roth, David M. (October 18, 2017). "Tropical Cyclone Point Maxima". Tropical Cyclone Rainfall Data. United States Weather Prediction Center. Retrieved November 26, 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Heavy Death Toll Feared in S. California Hurricane; L.A., Neighboring Cities Flooded by Torrential Rains". Oakland Tribune. 1939-09-25. p. 7. Archived from the original on 2017-09-24. Retrieved 2008-03-09.
  7. ^ Duginski, Paul (August 22, 2019). "Could a hurricane lash Los Angeles? 80 years ago, this deadly storm came close". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
  8. ^ Eric S. Blake; Edward Rappaport & Chris Landsea (2007-04-15). "The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones from 185 to 2006 (And Other Frequently Requested Hurricane Facts)" (PDF). National Hurricane Center. p. 7. Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-09.
  9. ^ "Tropical Storm Kills 56 on California Coast". Brownsville Herald. 1939-09-25. Archived from the original on 2017-09-24. Retrieved 2008-03-10.

External links[edit]