The Santa Ana River Flood of 1938 Remains Orange County’s Worst Natural Disaster

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

That's the library's official account, as drafted in 1957 by Haskett herself, a beloved figure for whom the city named an Anaheim library branch. She cited no sources, offered no evidence of any kind for her claim that Pinocchio was some kind of national hero.

In fact, the earliest mention of the Pinocchio story appears in the April 20, 1938, edition of the Bulletin.The story, “Anaheim Doll Takes Strange Story of Adventure to Ogden, Utah Show,” makes no mention of Pinocchio's heroics in telling his story. Two weeks later, when the doll returned from Utah, the Bulletinreported that the children of Ogden loved him. “He was the hero of Anaheim's March 3 flood, they were told,” the report said. “They delighted in the story of his miraculous rescue from the torrents which swept through [Anaheim]. They heard he swam to save his life, and finally went to sleep in an automobile from which two people had been swept to death.”

It's appropriate that Pinocchio is the most public monument to the Great Flood of 1938. Carlo Collodi's original 1883 book is a parable on the importance of truth, and its consequences. Lies bring death, suffering, the wrath of nature; the truth will set you free. The children of the 1938 flood—the Ritanos of La Jolla, the Montañas of Yorba, all the nameless babies and young Mexican laborers whom coroners never identified—were victims of a county unwilling to face the truth and threat of its river. And then the deluge.


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