The Tragedy of It All

Orange Countys own Hurricane Katrina: the Great Flood of 1938

Photo courtesy Anaheim
Public LibraryMORNING
The night of the Great Flood of 1938, Joe Aguirre slept well. It had rained for two weeks, and solidly the past seven days—night and day, cascades followed by gentle showers and now, on the night of March 2, rain lashing the roof of the Aguirre family's ramshackle home, transforming his working-class Placentia neighborhood into a muddy, nearly impassable mess.

But 12-year-old Joe was happy. He and his neighbors welcomed the annual storm. Early March meant the coming of the lluvias, the spring rains that nourished the orange groves where most Placentians earned their livings. In Joe's Mexican neighborhood, that meant picking for wealthy white farmers.

Just as predictably, the March lluvias swelled the nearby Santa Ana River. Some Mexican families who lived near its low banks in the coloniasof Atwood and La Jolla moved to the higher ground of nearby Placentia during spring, just in case. But the Santa Ana always calmed down, receding after a couple of days, and the families that had fled to Placentia returned to neighbors who teased them for their cowardice. Year after year, they were warned that the Santa Ana would flood. And year after year, the river followed its natural course from the San Bernardinos to the wetlands of Huntington Beach. The lluvias came, the warnings followed, the clouds moved on, the sun returned, the picking began.

But as Joe drifted to sleep around midnight, it finally came.

On March 3, around 2 a.m., the Santa Ana River jumped its banks near the mouth of Santa Ana Canyon, sending an eight-foot wall of water toward the small town of Yorba. Residents had no time to flee. Ralph Montaña left his house to start the family car. He left behind his wife, Frances; their two daughters, Carmelita and Frances; and two sons. Montaña had walked no more than 20 yards when he heard screams. He turned in time to see the ferocious stream rip his home from its foundation, carrying Frances and the girls to their deaths.

Montaña's house joined others in what looked like a river of solid wood, glass and brick, a fast-moving collection of debris that had been Yorba, which stopped only when it hit a bridge near the Santa Fe Railroad tracks just outside town. It formed a kind of dam, blocking the river's natural flow. The water hammered at the junk until the adjacent levee—some tires and abandoned automobiles held together by cement—finally collapsed and birthed a new, roaring branch of the Santa Ana.

The water gushed into Atwood. Placentia police officer Gus Barnes saw it coming from a distance, hopped into his squad car and sped through the muddy streets, furiously cranking his siren. Too late: Atwood's small Catholic church building, torn from its foundation, rode the current for two blocks before coming to rest against an automobile. Nearby, 18-year-old Pio de Casas drove his 1936 Ford toward home. But the waters lifted the car as they would a leaf, carrying the Ford about half a mile before tossing it against a telephone pole. De Casas scampered onto the pole, where he remained until morning.

Photo courtesy Anaheim
Public Library

The flooding Santa Ana River tore downstream through La Jolla, where authorities had spent the evening pleading with locals to leave. But the residents—all Mexican immigrants—had heard these warnings before, and they were skeptical. By the time the waters came, there was little left but to hoist women and children atop cupboards and tables. Too late, Frank Ritano ordered his family into his car and steered through La Jolla's dark, hilly streets. The rain had turned the streets into waterfalls. Ritano didn't drive far. A house smashed into his car; Frank, his two children and his wife, Mary, flew out. The Santa Ana River carried Mary away. Frank clutched his son and daughter, Rolando and Frances. He swam toward the sanctuary of the car. Suddenly, a loose board smacked Frank's head and his arms went momentarily limp. Frances slipped away. He grabbed Rolando and started swimming again. Another plank smashed against Frank. Rolando fell into the water. Frank never saw his children or wife alive again.

Within an hour, at 3 a.m., the waters reached Anaheim. The Placentia police department had tried warning their Anaheim counterparts, but the phone lines were down. Water as high as 15 feet inundated the city. People scrambled onto rooftops. Lenora and David Swanson squeezed into the car of the Reverend J.P. Wear, a popular pastor at the city's Church of the Nazarene. Wear tried to navigate the river, but the river won. He crashed into a house. Water poured into the back seat. Perhaps that was when Wear discovered the Swansons didn't know how to swim; he helped them onto the roof of the car. In the pandemonium, the churning waters swept the reverend away. Five days later, he would preside over the Swansons' funeral.

Throughout the night, the Santa Ana River spread across North Orange County. By daybreak, when Joe Aguirre's mother frantically roused him and his nine siblings, one-third of Orange County—from Yorba Linda in the north to Newport Beach and Seal Beach in the south—was a shallow lake.

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