What happened in San Bernardino County when Hurricane El Cordonazo arrived on land in 1939?

Waves pound the coast of Long Beach in 1939 as
Hurricane El Cordonazo arrives and begins to move inland as a tropical storm.
Waves pound the coast of Long Beach in 1939 as Hurricane El Cordonazo arrives and begins to move inland as a tropical storm.

As Hurricane Hilary moves toward Southern California, many have mentioned that if the hurricane makes landfall in California, it would be the first tropical storm to do so since 1939.

Many are watching as Hilary’s eye is expected to make landfall near the southern border on Sunday, the National Weather Service reported.

As with Hurricane El Cordonazo de San Francisco, or the Lash of St. Francis, which hit California in September 1939, Hurricane Hilary will lose much of its punch as it travels over land and toward our county and the High Desert

Despite losing strength, hurricanes have been strong enough to cause significant damage miles away from the Pacific Ocean.

September 1939

In September 1939, four tropical cyclones hit Southern California, with the last being the most devastating.

As residents struggled with cleanup from previous storms, El Cordonazo made landfall in California near Long Beach on Sep. 26, 1939.

It was the only tropical storm to make landfall in California during the 20th century.

The storm resulted in the death of 93 people; 45 died in flooding on land and another 48 were lost at sea, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The storm brought the greatest September rainfall ever to Southern California, with Los Angeles receiving 5.42 inches in 24 hours, and Mount Wilson 11.6 inches, the National Weather Service said.

The flooded streets of Long Beach in 1939 as Hurricane El Cordonazo hits the West Coast and becomes a tropical storm moving inland.
The flooded streets of Long Beach in 1939 as Hurricane El Cordonazo hits the West Coast and becomes a tropical storm moving inland.

Major damage

The storm battered Southern California with wind gusts up to 65 mph, damaging boats, structures, utility lines, and crops, according to the L.A. Times.

The storm also put the eastern Coachella Valley under 2 inches of water.

An estimated $2 million in damage was caused along the West Coast, but the American Meteorological Society estimated that if the 1939 storm had struck in 2004, it would have caused about $200 million in damage.

San Bernardino County gets soaked

The storm, which pushed out a major heat wave, brought heavy rain and flooding to the Inland Empire, the High Desert, and the San Bernardino Mountains.

Temperatures dropped so low during the storm that snow and sleet reportedly fell in the Big Bear area days after the storm had passed, the U.S. Weather Bureau reported.

Rain totals included Victorville with 1 inch, Lake Arrowhead with 1.61 inches, Crestline with 1.35 inches, San Bernardino with .65 inches, and Mt. Baldy with .33 inches.

Heavy downpours drenched Victorville, Barstow and Needles, with four feet of water reported in the lowlands of Needles.

New embankment and construction work east of Cajon Creek were damaged, and two new miles of Santa Fe railroad tracks were being constructed east of the creek to escape a future flood similar to The Great Flood of 1938.

Stranded hikers and campers

As the storm approached, families camping in the Mt. Baldy Wilderness Preserve were stranded by washouts and damaged roads. An overflowing creek in the area flooded out a bowling alley and casino, the San Bernardino County Sun reported.

In Rattlesnake Canyon, south of Lucerne Valley, 40-year-old Marie Briggs and her 10-year-old son, Robert, were separated from their deer hunting party during a torrential downpour as the storm approached the High Desert.

During their 48-hour ordeal, Briggs managed to create a shelter by burrowing along a canyon bank. She then built a fire for the two to stay warm.

A rescue party, which included Lucerne Valley residents and a sheriff’s deputy from Victorville, found the exhausted family members after the duo had wandered through 11 miles of dense timber and brush above Old Woman Springs on the north side of the mountain.

Train lines damaged, worker killed

The storm sent the Army Corps of Engineers to Victorville to conduct a flood control survey near the Upper Narrows, the Daily Press reported.

Heavy rain brought flooding to the Mojave Desert, with many roads damaged and rail lines undermined.

A portion of the Santa Fe railroad was damaged between Topock and Kingman, Arizona.

During that time, bridge gang worker John W. Thompson, 65, with the Los Angeles Bridge and Building Company was killed during the storm, the Needles Desert Star reported.

Thompson crawled under a concrete section of a ravine to seek shelter from the rain. When the soil was washed away, the concrete collapsed and crushed him. He was taken to the Needles Santa Fe hospital, where he died.

Rare direct hits to California

Direct hits by hurricanes to California are rare for a variety of reasons, including tropical systems that form in the Northern Hemisphere generally travel west or northwest because of the Earth’s rotation, according to the NWS.

Eastern Pacific hurricanes are born in the waters off the coast of southern Mexico and Central America, so to reach California, they’d have to veer north to an unusual extent.

Also, storms need warm water to give them the energy to transition into hurricanes, and the Pacific Ocean off California is about 10 degrees colder than the waters in Mexico, according to the NWS.

Daily Press reporter Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227 or RDeLaCruz@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_ReneDeLaCruz

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: What happened in San Bernardino County when a hurricane arrived in 1939?