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Hazardous Metropolis

Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles

Jared Orsi
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 289
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  • Book Info
    Hazardous Metropolis
    Book Description:

    Although better known for its sunny skies, Los Angeles suffers devastating flooding. This book explores a fascinating and little-known chapter in the city's history—the spectacular failures to control floods that occurred throughout the twentieth century. Despite the city's 114 debris dams, 5 flood control basins, and nearly 500 miles of paved river channels, Southern Californians have discovered that technologically engineered solutions to flooding are just as disaster-prone as natural waterways. Jared Orsi's lively history unravels the strange and often hazardous ways that engineering, politics, and nature have come together in Los Angeles to determine the flow of water. He advances a new paradigm—the urban ecosystem—for understanding the city's complex and unpredictable waterways and other issues that are sure to play a large role in future planning. As he traces the flow of water from sky to sea, Orsi brings together many disparate and intriguing pieces of the story, including local and national politics, the little-known San Gabriel Dam fiasco, the phenomenal growth of Los Angeles, and, finally, the influence of environmentalism. Orsi provocatively widens his vision toward other cities for which Los Angeles may offer a lesson—both of things gone wrong and a glimpse of how they might be improved.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93008-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. PROLOGUE. Water in Los Angeles: A Portrait of an Urban Ecosystem
    (pp. 1-10)

    A winter storm rolled onshore at Los Angeles on 13 February 1980. A second storm followed a day later, then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth. A sixth storm brought the heaviest rains yet, swelling the Los Angeles River to its levee tops. Meanwhile, weather forecasters spotted a seventh storm brewing out on the Pacific. As water rose in the dark that night, the swamped electronic stream gauges were malfunctioning, and the technicians at the flood-control headquarters lost track of exactly how high the water was running. If the river were to spill over its walls, it would...

  6. CHAPTER 1 City of a Thousand Rivers: The Emergence of an Urban Ecosystem, 1884–1914
    (pp. 11-35)

    In the winter of 1884, theLos Angeles Expresscomplained that the usually trickling Los Angeles River had turned into a “terrible and grand old river.” ¹ By early February, three months of rain had so moistened the ground that it could absorb little more. TheExpresswondered on 7 February if the rain would ever stop, but the downpours continued almost without pause for another month. Water began to gather, forming ponds and then lakes, and then it spread across the countryside. South of the town of Los Angeles, where the coastal plain stretches twenty miles to the Pacific...

  7. CHAPTER 2 A Centralized Authority and a Comprehensive Plan: Response to the Floods, 1914–1917
    (pp. 36-54)

    The flood impelled southern Californians to try to control water. In July 1914, 250 representatives from municipalities, civic organizations, and businesses gathered downtown at Blanchard Hall in response to an invitation from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. One delegate calculated the average interval between floods over the previous century and warned that deluges “will cause greater damage in future years.” He concluded that something had to be done: “Supine indifference and lack of energy to meet these flood damages is not in harmony with the successful achievement of this County.” To preserve that successful achievement, the delegates resolved...

  8. CHAPTER 3 A Weir to Do Man’s Bidding: The Great San Gabriel Dam Fiasco, 1917–1929
    (pp. 55-74)

    In its 1915 majority report, the Board of Engineers estimated that it would take only five years and $16.5 million to construct a network of check dams, diversion channels, and other devices to tame the county’s waters. These structures, they predicted, would “permanently relieve the people of Los Angeles county from the menace of future floods.” ¹ By the end of 1929, however, all the Flood Control District had to show for its efforts were a few successful projects, one enormous failure, a lot of wasted money, and a total loss of credibility.

    It was a dam that derailed the...

  9. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  10. CHAPTER 4 A More Effective Scouring Agent: The New Year’s Eve Debris Flood and the Collapse of Local Flood Control, 1930–1934
    (pp. 75-101)

    In late December 1933, a wet warm front advanced from its tropical origins northeastward to the California coast. Cyclonic weather patterns in December are not uncommon in the area, and at first nothing distinguished this one as it showered coastal southern California with moderate rains beginning on the afternoon of the thirtieth. But cold winds blew from the east, undercutting the tropical storm. The wet warm air mass rose before it reached the mountains, and it could no longer hold its moisture. Rains fell over the foothills in intensities more frequently experienced at the ridge crests. In eleven hours, the...

  11. CHAPTER 5 The Sun Is Shining over Southern California: The Politics of Federal Flood Control in Los Angeles, 1935–1969
    (pp. 102-128)

    It was an austere landscape. Standing in the bed of the Los Angeles River in the late 1960s, you would have found yourself in a field of concrete. A smooth veneer of pavement covered the trapezoidal channel for miles straight up- and downstream and from side to side, hundreds of feet across the bed. Also confined in pavement were the levee side that angled upward toward the sky. The scene resembled nothing so much as an empty freeway. At the center of the bed, water flowed in a groove several inches deep and several feet wide. This narrow and shallow...

  12. CHAPTER 6 Necessary but Not Sufficient: Storms, Environmentalism, and New Visions for Flood Control, 1969–2001
    (pp. 129-164)

    In 1969, LACDA lived up to John Dillard’s promise. Between 18 and 26 January, rain fell almost continuously. The dams overflowed; streets and buildings flooded; debris rumbled out of the mountains and buried seven people alive in their beds. Damages totaled thirty million dollars; the death toll, seventy-three. When it was all over, nearly thirteen and a half inches of rain had fallen on downtown Los Angeles, more than in any other nine-day span in southern California’s recorded history. By comparison, eleven inches had fallen downtown in 1938, eight in 1934, and seven in 1914. Although some areas suffered considerable...

  13. EPILOGUE. The Historical Structure of Disorder: Urban Ecology in Los Angeles and Beyond
    (pp. 165-184)

    Strange things have been happening in cities lately. In 1996, power lines sagging against tree branches outside Portland, Oregon, combined with other small power failures to trigger a cascade of blackouts that shut down law firms in Los Angeles, the airport in San Francisco, and casinos in Las Vegas. Before the lights went on again, four million people from Calgary to El Paso had lost power, some for up to sixteen hours. Meanwhile, East Coast residents have had their own utility troubles. Since February 2000, manhole covers have been spontaneously and inexplicably exploding from the streets in the wealthy and...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 185-236)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-266)
  16. Index
    (pp. 267-276)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 277-278)