The Tragedy of It All

Orange Countys own Hurricane Katrina: the Great Flood of 1938

Aguirre ran to a hill overlooking La Jolla and Atwood, where many of his friends lived. Once, he'd have seen two vibrant communities; now he saw a lake "as far as the horizon." It was the morning of March 3; sometimes, after the waves crested, they'd recoil and reveal the tops of orange trees.

Photo courtesy Orange County
Mexican American Historical

A 1942 Department of the Interior report found that the flood of 1938 inundated 182,000 acres and caused damage totaling about $14 million—about $182 million in constant dollars. Death came for 38 people. The debris and silt that covered so many groves ruined Orange County's citrus crop that year. More than 2,000 people out of a total county population of about 130,000 were left homeless.

The flood totaled every bridge along the Santa Ana River from Yorba down to Newport Beach. It covered the county in swirling waters that ranged from two to 15 feet deep and didn't recede for days. When the torrents finally stopped, the dead littered the streets. Survivors poled makeshift rafts down streets transformed into canals. Cars were stacked atop one another. The county hospital couldn't take victims—a moat surrounded it. All roads leading into Santa Ana and Silverado were blocked. Houses were reduced to sticks. Animal carcasses bobbed in the water. Entire sections of Anaheim, Placentia, Stanton and Yorba disappeared—the Mexican sections.

It's possible that the biggest casualty was the Santa Ana River itself, a once-mighty vein of life that Army geographers still call the most dangerous waterway west of the Mississippi. Beginning in 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers channelized, dammed and otherwise straitjacketed the river to ensure that something like the Great Flood of 1938 would never happen again.

And yet it nearly did. This January, when the lluvias arrived early, the Prado Dam nearly burst. This was the same project that was supposed to protect Orange County from another catastrophic flood.


A couple of days before the 1938 flood, Orange County authorities had warned people living near the Santa Ana River that it would soon breach its banks. But few left, and the authorities didn't try again.

"We got those warnings every year," said Aguirre, who has lived in Placentia all of his 83 years. "After a while, people just ignored them. They didn't think it would ever happen."

Frustrated, the Sheriff's Department told residents to stay near their radios. There would be no forced evacuations. An announcer would tell listeners of any problems.

"I sat and listened to the radio all night, as it had been promised that we would receive warning if there was danger from the water," one La Jolla resident told the Santa Ana Register the day after the flood pummeled his town. "Just as the announcer gave his warning, the water struck the front of my house. I got my family to the school, but we saved nothing."

Later, county residents blasted the government's response. In the aftermath, one newspaper reported that Christian pastors took to their pulpits and called the flood an act of man, not God. The Newport Beach News-Times recorded that residents forced the City Council to investigate the city's police and fire departments. Citizens accused cops and firefighters of dereliction—failing to warn residents of the advancing flood, refusing "to aid refugees in removing household goods, start their cars" and, in one case, standing by as "a 76-year-old man, A. G. Hise, suffered a heart attack."

Photo courtesy Anaheim
Public Library

But ultimate blame for the 1938 flood fell on Orange County voters. The year before, in a June 1937 report to the county Board of Supervisors, Flood Control District officials warned, "The heavy storms of January 1916, February 1928 and February 1937 brought to the attention of the people of Orange County the fact that there still exists a potential flood within the Orange County Flood Control District."

That report merely said what everyone already knew. Severe flooding from the Santa Ana River had been a part of county life since the days of Father Junipero Serra. In 1862, 30 straight days of winter rains created a lake three times the size of the 1938 inundation. The few people who lived in the county at the time built makeshift levees to block further flooding, but heavy rains knocked them down almost yearly.

Finally, county fathers commissioned a report to convince county voters that a better flood control system was necessary. But the voters refused to fund it. In 1929, the county placed a $15.5 million bond on the ballot that would allow the county to acquire right of way along the Santa Ana River and near the town of Prado for dam building and flood-channel control. It failed by a few votes.

The county tried again in 1935 and 1936, but the measure lost by wider and wider margins each election. Voters didn't want the extra cost, according to an Anaheim Bulletin account, and the measure "met stubborn opposition from a group of persons whose interests were mainly safe from flood danger." The Bulletin revealed in another piece, "At least one [man] declared it would be good for Orange County to have a flood, and he presented arguments to prove his point."

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