By Ed Meckle, Retired LAPD
In 1947 the L.A. Department of Water and Power began construction on an earthen filled dam in Baldwin Hills. The location was in a low set of hills south and west of downtown L.A. surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
There was debate at the time as work proceeded, since they were building on an active earthquake fault line. Against expert advice and despite all concerns the project was completed, and the reservoir filled by 1951.
All went without incident until approximately 11:30 AM on Saturday morning December 14, 1963. A routine daily inspection disclosed a small leak near the base of the dam, increasing in size by the hour. The Department tried to stem the flow without success. Realizing it would take 24 hours to drain the lake, LAPD was immediately contacted, and an evacuation plan put into play. This was a Saturday and a lot of people would be at home instead of work. It was estimated 1600 people were in harm’s way.
Motor officers from all over the city were summoned as well as all available black and whites. Evacuations began at 1:30 PM.
Metro Division was alerted but could not be on the scene for several hours.
About 3:30 PM on that cold December day the unthinkable happened. At the point of the leak a large “V” shaped fissure appeared. An estimated 250-300 million gallons of water was released to flow northward through residential neighborhoods roughly bounded on the west by La Cienega, east by LaBrea and Jefferson on the North.
The area was roughly several hundred blocks square. TV station KTLA had a helicopter up at the time of the breach and it is believed to be the first aerial coverage of its kind. It can be viewed on Google.
The wall of water estimated at 50 feet high by several hundred feet across destroyed or damaged 277 homes in a matter of minutes. Five lives were lost along with 29 LAPD motorcycles as officers had to scramble to rooftops to escape, many to be rescued by LAFD helicopters. It took an estimated 77 minutes to completely empty the lake.
As a sergeant working Metro, we were on scene by late afternoon. The evacuations were a great success thanks to quick work by LAPD.
Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, I cannot post photos of this horrific incident. For pictures, google “Baldwin Hills Dam disaster.”
We were to be there for the better part of a week, twelve hour shifts to prevent looting and provide whatever assistance we could.
If the Bel Aire fire 25 months prior had seemed a barren moon scape this was something beyond description.
I spent the entire week on the night watch. 6 PM to 6 AM. Always dark, always cold, always windy, and always damp. as I remember it. Lifeless everywhere you looked. Houses with no roofs, roofs with no houses. I remember a living room couch in a tree, a kitchen table and clothing in others.
As the water sought lower levels, it pushed cars ahead of it, sometimes leaving them stacked 3-4 high like children’s toys.
The coroner had parked a refrigerated truck at the University police station but there were only five fatalities.
The cold and wetness seemed to accentuate the smell of death that hung in the air. So many dead pets and the occasional found body. A lot of the streets were not drivable, so we worked the perimeter. Within the flooded area were fixed posts, cold and desolate, most with trash can fires to keep warm. It was a scene from another time, another place, but where? The silence and sense of aloneness was downright eerie.
Destruction and devastation everywhere. It left a lasting impression on us all.
Many of the residents never returned to rebuild. The reservoir was never rebuilt and is now the site of a park.