OVERFLOWING: This aerial shot of the La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road intersection gives a view of how extensive the flooding was from the Baldwin Hills Dam Failure Saturday, December 14 1963. PHOTO: Sentinel Archive
THEN AND NOW: Now Kenneth Hahn park, this was the site of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir built in 1951 and eventually failing in 1963
Commemorating 50 Years Since Tragedy Brought Triumph
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas will host a gathering Saturday December 14 at Kenneth Hahn Park commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Baldwin Hills Flood. A disaster that forever changed Baldwin Hills, the community turned tragedy to triumph.
Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Recreation, Chief Deputy Director John Wicker, the Baldwin Hills Conservancy and Mujeres De La Tierra have organized this event to remember this historic moment in the community’s history and also to celebrate the unfolding of parklands where the reservoir sat five decades ago.
Caused by a break in the dam encasing the Baldwin Hills reservoir, 280 million gallons of water gushed through the area sweeping buildings, houses and cars in its destructive path. Five lives were lost in this horrific disaster but thankfully hundreds were spared due to members of the community banding together.
It was just before 1pm Saturday, December 14 1963 when helicopter observers gave the Baldwin Hills Dam mere minutes to keep from bursting. Workers had been onsite investigating a crack in the face and bottom of the dam since the day prior and the prognosis became steadily worse with each passing hour.
As pressure from millions of gallons of water turned the crack into a gaping hole fifty-feet wide, a river of water gushed from the reservoir onto the inexpectant city below.
Structurally the city was defenseless against the powerful force of the water suffering property damages in the millions. As a community however the people were not off guard. A cordon of nearly 100 motorcycle officers assembled in the parking area around the then Thriftimart on Rodeo and La Brea Ave just before the flow erupted. The officers began going house to house throughout the hills and lower areas warning people to evacuate. Once the water got a few feet off the ground it began sweeping cars away. Many of the officers warning residents became stuck in the area themselves as their vehicles were gushed away in the flood.
Tom Bradley was the districts a newly elected City Councilman at the time of the flood and responded swiftly to the situation. Bradley, who made history as the first African American elected to city council, was faced with his first major catastrophe just months after taking office. He rose to the occasion working effectively to help the city fair as best as possible through the disaster. Bradley himself went door-to-door warning residents of the impending danger and urging them to evacuate. Later, in the wake of all the damage, Bradley was an integral part in helping homeowners receive the insurance money they were entitled.
Another hero of the flood was then 17-year-old James L. Brown, a Dorsey High School student and aspiring Eagle Scout. Brown saved the lives of three people that Saturday putting himself in harms way to rescue them from the car they were trapped inside.
But 1963 was a very different time in the United States; no exception Baldwin Hills was a community not nearly as culturally inclusive as it is now, on the contrary racism was as much as a factor in Baldwin Hills as it was throughout the country. For that reason neither Bradley nor Brown received their due credit for their efforts during this historic moment.
The LA Sentinel printed an article a month later about Brown’s rescue on that day under the headline, “Youth Rewarded For Dam Heroism.” The headline was in reference to the savings account he was gifted with by Family Savings and Loan Association (now One United).
Fifty years later Brown should be 67 now and organizers of Saturday’s commemoration would be honored to have him and all other survivors in attendance. Lorraine Bradley, daughter of the late Tom Bradley will be present at the gathering in honor of her father.
All are welcome to the commemoration and celebration Saturday December 14th at noon, and if you are a survivor of the flood or have any information on survivors (particularly Mr. James L. Brown), please contact The Sentinel.