Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.

The day that shook L.A.

The long beach earthquake of 1933—Southern California


On the evening of March 10, 1933, a powerful earthquake rocked Southern California, hitting the cities of Long Beach and Compton particularly hard. Exterior walls were torn from buildings, bricks smothered roads and sidewalks, and critical infrastructure was crippled.

The magnitude-6.3 quake killed an estimated 120 people and injured thousands more. Loss estimates at the time soared to around $50 million—nearly $1 billion in today’s money. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers from dozens of departments responded to the incident, while physicians struggled to save the injured by performing surgery by candlelight.

A Los Angeles Times article described the scene in Los Angeles: “In the downtown section where buildings swayed and shook for minutes, falling bricks, chunks of cement and building material of all kinds rained down. Huge pieces of cement and bricks crashed through the tops of parked automobiles and in many instances injured pedestrians, thousands of whom were wending their way homeward from the downtown district.”

Reports published that spring by NFPA and the National Board of Fire Underwriters stressed the need for Southern California’s buildings, as well as the region’s power and safety infrastructures, to be better prepared to withstand earthquakes. The quake exposed deficiencies in Long Beach’s fire protection systems, according to the NFPA report, while the city’s firefighting capability was limited by “small breaks in the water system, failure of the fire alarm system, partial failure of the telephone system, collapse of some of the fire stations and consequent barricade of debris, accumulation of debris in the streets, and some casualties in the personnel of the firefighting forces.”

Despite these deficiencies, losses from fire were relatively small during the incident, the result of prompt shutoff of gas and electrical services, according to the NFPA report. It may have also been due in part to sheer luck. The two largest fires, for instance, occurred in schools, but since the quake struck at about 6 p.m., the buildings were empty.

Other deficiencies, such as the poor construction methods, proved more detrimental. About 20,000 homes and 2,000 other structures suffered damage ranging from cracked plaster to complete destruction, according to the Underwriters report. Schools in particular suffered extensive structural damage, prompting the California Legislature a month later to pass the Field Act, the first in a series of laws to mandate earthquake-resistant construction for schools throughout the state, from elementary schools to community colleges. The Field Act became the most substantial part of the earthquake’s legacy. “It has saved our children’s lives, and it saves the state a lot of money,” a seismologist from Pasadena told the Los Angeles Times in 2008 for an article marking the quake’s 75th anniversary.

Eighty-five years later, the Long Beach temblor remains Southern California’s deadliest earthquake.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images