The Tragedy of It All

Orange Countys own Hurricane Katrina: the Great Flood of 1938

Weeks after the initial cleanup, survivors continued to find victims of Atwood and La Jolla. About two weeks after the flood, searchers found the corpse of 6-year-old Guadalupe Yníguez hanging in the branches of an orange tree in Anaheim. A month after the flood, an Anaheim farmer clearing debris found the badly decomposed body of 68-year-old Ydilfonso Agúndez, sitting under an orange tree and entombed in mud, three miles from his Atwood home.

Photo courtesy Anaheim
Public Library

Anglo Orange County organized charity basketball games, dances and even wrestling tournaments, with all proceeds going to flood victims. Schools, YMCAs and American Legion Halls across the county opened their doors to the residents of Atwood, La Jolla and the Mexican section of Anaheim, which was leveled.

Sixty-five Mexican-American civic groups united to help victims; this alliance would eventually establish Latino political power in the county. Anaheim offered to rebuild its previously decrepit Mexican section at no cost to victims.

The newspapers of the day were surprisingly benevolent toward Mexicans—the Anaheim Gazette,in particular, argued that it was the county's responsibility to rebuild the homes of Mexican victims.

But the goodwill of white Orange County toward a Mexican population then still legally segregated via housing, schooling and even churches quickly disappeared. A March 23 Register story showed that a group called United Spanish War Veterans went before the Board of Supervisors to complain that all the aid to "indigent Mexicans" came at the expense of helping "solvent citizens." The board "expressed sympathy with the viewpoint."

Many people who move to Orange County from other parts of the country or abroad note the county's curious lack of memory. There's a collective amnesia: few parks marking major events, street names that are supposed to honor pioneers or communities—Irvine, Raitt, Segerstrom, Newland, Zeyn—mean nothing to most of us; and how many Santa Anans have mistaken Memory Lane, a memorial to the dead of World War I, for something quainter, a street of tea and crumpets?

No, most of us think of Orange County as an arrow aimed at some vague point in the future. If we look back, it's generally to No Doubt or the Offspring—or, further, Social Distortion, or maybe Disneyland. It says something that The O.C. could take place anywhere.

So it's hardly surprising that the epochal Great Flood of 1938 is mostly invisible today. When heavy rains soak the county, newspapers mention it, maybe even include the recollections of a few old-timers, but never put the calamity in its proper context: government incompetence, the inordinate suffering of the poor, a warning from our forebears. Local histories devote maybe a page to the disaster, and then it's usually crammed with black-and-white pictures of wrecked homes. No one discusses the 1938 flood in the recent reissue of Orange County, A Centennial Celebration,an anthology by the county's major antiquarians.

There are just two public monuments to the Great Flood of 1938. One is a simple plaque near the base of the flagpole at Placentia's Melrose Elementary. The school stands on the spot where the Red Cross erected a city of about 250 tents to house displaced Atwood and La Jolla residents. If anyone notices it, it's parents impatiently waiting for children after school.

The other is Pinocchio. In the children's section of the Anaheim Public Library, on top of a computer station, sits a wooden doll of the beloved children's character. It's not the cherubic Disney plaything now familiar worldwide; this Pinocchio is crude. He's got thin, wooden planks for legs and arms and a papier-mâché head with a noticeable crack in the back of his skull. His skin is swarthy; his eyes blue. Same long nose, though.

Photo courtesy Anaheim
Public Library

For years, the Anaheim Public Library held a party for Pinocchio on the anniversary of the flood. The library handed out pamphlets retelling Pinocchio's story in his own words, with the doll humbly admitting, "I am an important person—I am a hero of the Anaheim flood."

A plaque below Pinocchio's display case tells his story. Apparently, Pinocchio was in the house of David and Lenora Swanson the night of the flood. The story has it that Lenora ran a famed doll hospital and was to repair Pinocchio in time for a doll show in Ogden, Utah. Elva Haskett, Anaheim's children's librarian, was to pick up Pinocchio on March 2. But the rains fell hard that night, so Haskett decided to wait another day. The rain didn't stop, of course, and that night the Swansons hitched their fateful ride with the Reverend J.P. Wear. They grabbed Pinocchio and another doll.

Wear found his car the next day; inside, Pinocchio's pleasant, smiling face protruded from the mud that had swamped the vehicle's interior. His pants and a leg were missing.

Wear found the bodies of the Swansons nearby. Five days later, he officiated over the Swansons' funeral at Bethel Baptist Church.

Someone else stitched up Pinocchio in time for his scheduled appearance in Utah. A weary county immediately embraced the doll when it returned. "Anaheim Flood Doll Hero," said the headlines at the time. All was good.

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