The Tragedy of It All

Orange Countys own Hurricane Katrina: the Great Flood of 1938

We don't know for sure what those arguments were, but it's easy to imagine: that one man has no responsibility for another; that those who choose to live near the river bear the burden for the terrible, predictable disasters that accompany life in the floodplain; more abstractly, that flood planning would increase the scope—and therefore the power—of government; maybe even that those most likely affected by flooding are the poorest.

The bond finally passed in 1937, after the Board of Supervisors cut the local tab to just $2.5 million; the federal government, mired in the Great Depression, would contribute the rest. Construction on the dam began in July 1938—three months after the March flood—and finished three years later.

The delays and politicking around the dam enraged the local press—but only after the flood took its toll. Even the libertarian Register called for government action, in strikingly collectivist terms: "Had the Prado dam been in operation much damage would have been averted and much water conserved to be used to produce food and make it more easily obtained for the people as a whole."

But the angriest response was the Anaheim Bulletin's, a publication that frequently assailed the New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but said government had at least one clear responsibility: to protect its citizens. On the day of the flood, the Bulletin editorialized that the dam construction project "will be a splendid achievement, but it never will bring back one of the lives lost, nor will it restore any of the property destroyed. The realization that it need not have been necessary must increase the feeling of responsibility borne by those who [opposed it].

"The tragedy of it all," the Bulletineditorial concluded, "is that we know it need not have been."

Ralph Montaña, or Yorba, carries
the dead body of his eight-
year-old daughter, Carmelita,
to a waiting hearse after
finding her hanging in an
orange tree.
Photo courtesy Bill Zavala

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the 1938 flood paint a surreal scene of survival and loss. Aerial pictures captured submerged towns. Cameramen shot footage of the wreckage and screened it in county theaters with the dramatic legend, "These pictures were taken to show that water controlled is a blessing, but roaring and turbulent, a curse."

Story after story told the tales of survivors who barely escaped, many of them thanks only to trees. "I lived in a tree," began Wilber Kamrath in a first-person essay for the Orange Daily News.The Yorba Linda Star described how Atwood resident William Anderson had spent the flood perched on an apple tree: "He had jumped out of a window of his house as it floated by the tree." The flood swept one man two miles out from Long Beach into the Pacific, where a Navy ship saved him. He had been standing on a Long Beach bridge when it collapsed, but survived; his 10 friends weren't as lucky.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of "rowboat pirates" who waded through the carnage to "leisurely loot" homes. The National Guard shut off Anaheim "from thousands of curious spectators" who wanted to rummage through the piles of wood that were once regal homes. The papers even covered the pain of animals. The Register reported that dogs roamed Atwood and La Jolla, "finding their search hopeless. Their human friends are gone forever. . . . One, a little black fellow, begged each passerby—with pleading eyes—to take him home."

The worst losses occurred in the colonias of Atwood and La Jolla, Mexican communities in the midst of Placentia's orange groves. Of the 32 dead identified in the 1938 flood, 21 had Hispanic surnames. Of those, 16 were under the age of 15. Three-quarters of the 21 had lived in Atwood and La Jolla.

The local newspapers focused most of their harrowing accounts on these two communities, where houses were constructed with scrap wood on foundations of a single brick at each corner. In Atwood, recounted the Register, an electrical and hail storm hampered search crews. "When the brief storm ended," the Register described, "a double rainbow shown [sic] over the stricken community." Reporters followed survivors as they searched, and frequently found, their loved ones among the debris. "A father was seen," revealed the Bulletin in a typical dispatch, "carrying the dead body of his child, and unwilling to release it, even after reaching a rescue truck."

There were few quotes from actual survivors, however—the white reporters didn't think they could communicate with the Mexican laborers, says Aguirre, "even though us kids spoke fluent English."

Many of Orange County's daily and weekly newspapers published the story of a man alternately identified as Rodríguez or Martínez, no first name given. The man led a search party through Atwood after the Santa Ana receded. He came across the body of a little girl, "the head caught in the limbs of an orange tree.

"Fighting his way to the tree," the chronicle continued, "the father was horrified when he identified the body as that of his daughter. With the little body clasped in his arms the father trudged back through the water and mud to the Atwood store where he left the body and returned to the dreary task of searching for his wife and other three children."

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