Environment & Science

42 historic photos show strongest El Niños to hit SoCal

1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: Highway crews work to get the Roosevelt Highway at Santa Monica Canyon into shape for traffic. Five feet of water poured over the roads, undermining the pavement. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: A man and his dachshund walk across the remains of a crushed house in the North Hollywood or Toluca Lake area. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: Cars covered in mud in a field after floods in San Bernardino. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: A half-submerged house in the North Hollywood or Toluca Lake area, where 10 houses washed into the L.A. River when the Lankershim Bridge collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: Southern Pacific's Dayton Avenue railroad bridge, located near Elysian Park, collapsed when the banks of the L.A. River eroded after heavy rains. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: The cleanup of Channel Road in Santa Monica Canyon after tons of mud and silt were deposited from flood waters that raced down the canyon. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: The rushing Arroyo Seco River, which flooded in the winter of 1938. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: The ruins of the Avenue 43 bridge, which spanned the Arroyo Seco between North Figueroa and Griffin Avenue, after it washed out. The original bridge was built in 1925. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: A hog barn in El Monte collapses into either the San Gabriel or the Rio Hondo river, both of which flooded in 1938. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the Herman J. Schultheis Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: Officer August Curcio lifts a piece of rock from the Pasadena Freeway at Riverside Drive. Rock slides from Elysian Park caused the closing of the freeway to inbound traffic. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: Hank Pilgian is seen walking through waist-deep water after his car was swept away by flood waters at Sepulveda and Centinela. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: Stranded motorist Arthur Simian in two-foot-deep flood waters at Slauson and Knightsbridge avenues. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
February 19, 1958: Herald Express reporter Frank Elmquist lends a helping hand to Eddie Boldetti, 15, after he tumbled in the flood waters near his home at 154th St. and Larch St. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: Motorist drive through the flood waters on Pico Boulevard near Union Avenue. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 28, 1958: Fireman Gerald Bledsoe, left, keeps a rope handy as others pull Wilson Horsberger, 14, of Van Nuys, and Ronald Andrews, 14, of Pacoima from the Pacoima Wash where the boys were trapped after they tried to cross the deep rushing waters. Their broken bicycles were found two miles downstream. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: A stalled car sits idle in the middle of flooded Country Club Drive near Gramercy Drive. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1958: A typical scene in North Hollywood during the winter of 1958. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
March 17, 1958: Tons of earth loosened by recent rains rumbled down a hillside and smashed into two homes on the 3400 block of De la Cumbre Ave. in Sherman Oaks. The landslide nearly buried a girl alive and pushed a man and his car into street. An arrow shows where the girl escaped. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 1, 1965: A student at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood looks like he could use another hand as he makes a mad dash to his classroom. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)
George Brich/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 2, 1965: Burbank resident Mrs. Lucille Hanson rides on bulldozer to safety with operator A. K. Winkle. Earlier, she became stranded in her car along Country Club Drive in Burbank and had to be rescued by the city's assistant police chief, Robert Loranger. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Bob Martin/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
May 5, 1965: Actor Robert Stack checks the sky as he and his companions are rained out during the 31st annual Motion Picture Tournament at the Lake Encino Racquet Club. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 8, 1965: Workers place sandbags in an unfilled telephone cable ditch on Laurel Canyon Blvd. near Lookout Mountain Ave. after rains threatened to wash away portions of the street weakened by the excavation. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by George Bruch/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 2, 1965: Flood waters on Wilbur Ave. north of Ventura Blvd. proved almost too much for this doughty little compact automobile. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by Tom Kravitz/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 9, 1965: Burbank's Country Club Drive became a scene of rushing flood waters and thick mud slides, requiring the use of bulldozers. Residents were ordered to evacuate. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by Gordon Dean/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 14, 1965: Rain water broke the pavement surface of a street in Burbank's Wildwood Canyon Park. Officials said the area would be closed until repairs could be made. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by Gordon Dean/Valley Times Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
December 1, 1973: Topanga Canyon was closed due to a mudslide but adventurous residents set out to see how far they could go after the road had been partially cleared. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by Bruce E. Howell/Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
March 8, 1983: City Hall is reflected in pool of rainwater as L.A. enjoys rain-free days. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
April 11, 1982: A cloudy day in Santa Monica found some Burbank teenagers huddled under a lifeguard tower. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photo by Mike Mullen/Herald-Examiner Collection
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
March 19, 1998: Inspectors survey the damage to luxury condominiums in Laguna Niguel that slipped down a hillside eroded by heavy El Nino rains earlier in the month. Two homes and seven condos were destroyed in the slide and several more are threatened with destruction.
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
March 19, 1998: A luxury home in Laguna Niguel slipped down a hillside eroded by heavy El Nino rains earlier in the month. Two homes and seven condos were destroyed in the slide and several more are threatened with destruction.
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
February 13, 1998: Workers labor to shore up mudslide damage to homes in Canoga Park where some houses are in danger of sliding down the hillside. Heavy El Nino rains have caused landslides and flooding in California and Mexico.
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
February 13, 1998: Workers inspect damage to homes in Canoga Park after heavy El Nino-generated rains caused landslides and flooding.
MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
December 5, 1997: Large waves pound the beach in Santa Monica as a couple makes their way past an unmanned lifeguard station through an opening in the 15-foot sand berms that line the coast. Beaches were empty as the first storm front hit Southern California.
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
December 5, 1997: A bulldozer works to reinforce a 15-foot sand berm along Venice Beach as the first El Nino-related storm hits the west coast of the U.S. Sand berms along the coast of Los Angeles have been strengthened to prevent storm surges due to elevated sea levels created by El Nino.
MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
December 5, 1997: A beachcomber walks near a 15-foot sand berm along a beach in Santa Monica as rains from the first El Nino-related storm hits the west coast of the U.S.
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
January 16, 1998: A surfer rides a wave off the coast of Manhattan Beach where El Nino has created large waves. In the background is an anchored cargo ship.
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
January 7, 1998: A surfer rides the foam of a crashing wave off the coast of Manhattan Beach. Waves up to 16 feet high have been generated by El Nino.
Mike Nelson/AFP/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
February 8, 1998: Fans take cover from the rain during a match between Brazil and El Salvador in the CONCACAF Gold Cup at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
1938: People walk along the flooded L.A. River near the Dayton Avenue Bridge. In the background, a railroad bridge hangs in a twisted heap after one of the pilings has collapsed. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
February 14, 1998: Two couples take cover from the rain as they queue outside the Hollywood Paladium for a wedding ceremony. Some 500 couples were expected to attend the ceremony organized by KLVE, a Spanish-speaking radio station.
Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images


The rains are back, albeit briefly. While this "Godzilla El Niño" has been relatively dry, past El Niños have soaked the Southland. Here's a look back at the strongest and most significant El Niños of the last 80 years.

1958: The Angelus Temple, located on Glendale Boulevard near Sunset Boulevard, as flood waters lap at its doorway and cars
1958: The Angelus Temple, located on Glendale Boulevard near Sunset Boulevard, as flood waters lap at its doorway and cars "sail" along to their destinations. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Herald-Examiner Collection

1938 - The rain began unremarkably on the night of Sunday, February 27. But it kept raining. And pouring. For five straight days. Hillsides, saturated with 11 inches of rain, rushed toward the swelling Los Angeles River. Eight-square miles of Venice were flooded. A massive hunk of the Lankershim Bridge collapsed and was washed away. Train tracks were swamped. Phone lines were knocked out. When all was said and done, 144 people died in the disaster. As the Los Angeles Times points out, it was L.A.'s first major flood since the population boom of the 1920s.

1938 flood video

1957-58 - This was the year scientists made a major breakthrough in understanding El Niño. It only happened because of the International Geophysical Year of 1957−1958, a massive effort by scientists from 67 countries to survey various phenomena. Back then, "El Niños in Peru were still thought to be a local quirk," Bay Nature explains. UCLA meteorologist Jacob Bjerknes and his cohort shared their data with other scientists and were surprised to learn that the telltale current of warm water extended thousands of miles into the Pacific Ocean. That helped Bjerknes develop his hypothesis about the connections between trade wind circulation, tropical rains and ocean water.

1958 flood video

1965-66 - This was a strange El Niño. Although it was a strong one, it brought a period of merely average rainfall to Southern California and less rain than average in other parts of the state. This winter also marked the release of "California Dreamin," the Mamas and the Papa's tune about a singer yearning to escape his grey and gloomy locale for the sunshine and warmth of the Golden State. It eventually tied for the No. 1 record of 1966. Fitting or not? You be the judge.

1966: In downtown L.A., a pedestrian's view of Broadway, looking south from 6th Street on a rainy day. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
1966: In downtown L.A., a pedestrian's view of Broadway, looking south from 6th Street on a rainy day. (Photograph courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
Photograph from the William Reagh Collection

1972-73 - Labeled a Super El Niño (along with the events of  1982-83 and 1997-98), this one is most famous for its devastation of Peru's anchovy fishing industry, which took years to recover. In Southern California, that meant 6.45 more inches of rainfall than normal, according to Los Angeles Almanac.

1982-83 - This is the El Niño that snuck in like a lamb and roared out like a lion, leaving havoc in its wake. The weather phenomenon wasn't a blip on the radar of most Californians when the state was hit with severe storms during the winter of 1982-83. Even meteorologists weren't talking much about it. Why? There were a few reasons, as the Washington Post explains. The eruption of a volcano in Mexico obscured then-new satellite views and little attention was paid to measurements that mark the early stages of an El Niño. After this, 70 buoys that report sea-surface and underwater temperatures (as well as other data) were moored in the Pacific Ocean to measure signs that help predict El Niños.

1997-98 - By the 1990s, the culture had hit full "Niñomania," according to the LA Times. Weather hounds got their fill with this season of freak weather. A twister ripped through downtown. Winds reached near-hurricane speeds. 18-foot high waves destroyed a 400-foot section of the Santa Monica pier. And there was rain, tons of it. If you lived in Southern California at the time, you probably remember the flooded roads, freeways and creeks that were common during one of the most severe El Niños in modern memory. 

1997 El Nino doc

Click on the slideshow above to see more historic photos.

Do you remember of the rains of 1982, 1998 or any other major El Niño year? Share your photos with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also email pics to Elina Shatkin at eshatkin@scpr.org. And text us the word rain at 323.924.6509 to be a part of our weather coverage.