The 1956 flood that inundated Torrance and forced flood control improvements – Daily Breeze
In a recent article on the Dominguez Channel, I mentioned how Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn pledged to improve the flood control situation in the South Bay after meeting with local residents forced to evacuate to the Leuzinger High School gymnasium during a rainstorm in 1952.
This storm dropped more than five inches of rain over a five-day period in January 1952. Four years later, work to rebuild the Dominguez Canal had barely begun when the largest downpour in recorded weather history hit the region in January 1956.
It arrived just in time for local agriculture, as the Southern California region previously suffered from a prolonged drought. But farmers may have been one of the few groups to benefit from the storm, which caused a lot of damage in urban areas.
According to the Torrance Herald, the two-day deluge on Wednesday Jan. 25 and Thursday Jan. 26 dropped 8.53 inches over the city. The City of Los Angeles reported 7.97 inches. In contrast, only 7.66 inches fell in the South Bay during the entire 2021-22 rainy season, including the powerful storms last December.
Simply put, the storm of January 1956 was a major disaster. It caused damage throughout the South Bay, with El Segundo and the North Torrance/Gardena/Lawndale areas particularly affected.
In El Segundo, where 7.81 inches fell, homes were damaged in low-lying areas of town when floodwaters rose high enough to cover baseboards. Emergency responders had to come and remove the stranded residents from their homes and take them to the Red Cross shelter at the Scout House on Grand Ave.
The streets became lakes and the cars were submerged. According to the El Segundo Herald, Valley St. resident Hubert Armstrong told police, “I was backing into my driveway and the street caved in. Police found his car straddling a six-foot-wide and 12-foot-deep hole. Neither Armstrong nor his car were injured.
Schools were closed on Thursday and Friday, and several businesses in the city’s industrial sector also closed rather than risk the safety of employees.
Such closures were widespread across the region as many schools and businesses closed in the wake of the powerful storm.
When the Coast Guard is among the resources called in to help rescue residents of an area of widespread flooding, it is reasonable to assume that there is a major problem. This was the case in the Lawndale, North Torrance and Gardena areas through which the Dominguez Canal currently passes.
The Laguna Dominguez and Bixby swamps had not yet been tamed, so floodwaters also flowed through parts of Harbor City and Carson unchecked. The Los Angeles Times reported that a professional diver was called after the rains stopped to locate and help rescue a totally submerged car near 190th and Figueroa streets.
Flooding was endemic to North Torrance in particular. Many residents had to be evacuated by lifeboats from the area near Elgar Avenue and 168th Street, just west of Crenshaw Boulevard. Dozens of families from that neighborhood and other nearby affected neighborhoods were taken to the Red Cross shelter established at Torrance American Legion Hall, then located on Border Ave. downtown.
At Gardena, Vermont Blvd. was underwater for at least a mile south of Gardena Blvd., with several cars reported completely underwater at Vermont’s intersection with Artesia Blvd. Several families were also rescued from their homes on Wilkie Ave. in Hawthorne.
The storm completely inundated four homes on Condon Ave. in Lawndale and temporarily trapped 100 students inside Jane Addams School on 153rd Place. Buses were finally able to transport the students home. Leuzinger High’s gymnasium again served as shelter, as it had four years earlier.
Morningside High students in Inglewood were also sent home after muddy floodwaters inundated their campus. School children involved in these rescues often had to climb into school buses which had to stop at the front steps at the entrance to the schools to join them.
Help during the emergency came not only from the Red Cross, but also from LA County lifeguards, police and fire rescue units (including Torrance Mounted Police), the National Guard, amateur radio enthusiasts and many other local volunteers. Torrance’s new Civil Defense communications system also started up successfully during the crisis.
As of Friday morning, rainfall had all but ceased, although floodwaters would afflict badly affected areas for several days. Most residents were able to return to their homes over the weekend to assess the damage, which was extensive in many cases.
Help became available after California Governor Goodwin Knight declared the city of Torrance a disaster area during the storm. The County Board of Supervisors launched an investigation in early February 1956 to assess the many failures in its flood control system.
By July 1956, construction projects to address various flood control deficiencies, including the reconstruction of the Dominguez Canal, had begun in earnest. More than eight inches of rain over a two-day period had served as a soaking wake-up call.
Sources: El Segundo Herald Archive. “A History of Significant Weather Events in Southern California Organized by Weather Type,” National Weather Service website. Los Angeles Times Archive. Palos Verdes Peninsula News Archive. Torrance Press-Herald Archive.