On January 27, 1938, rain began to fall over Southern California. Day after day it continued with ominous persistency. Heavy rainfall measured in Anaheim and the greater flow of the Santa Ana River, made it apparent that a flood could visit the city anytime. “Shadows” of the impending flood appeared as early as the afternoon of March 2, when the floodwaters from Carbon Canyon had already arrived in Anaheim. La Palma Ave. being the original watercourse for Carbon Canyon Creek often ran curb to curb during rains. By nightfall on March 2nd however, most of the area north of Wilhelmina Street was already under water. Over 8-1/2 inches of rain fell in the 100 hours prior to 9 A.M. March 3rd. The flow of the Santa Ana River rose steadily until about midnight March 2nd when the flow exceeded 100,000 cubic feet per second, a veritable mountain of water passing through the canyon notch at Prado.
At 2 A.M. Thursday March 3rd., workman on duty on the Santa Ana River dike east of Atwood saw the surface of the river rise five feet in thirty minutes. At 2:30 the major portion of the river cut through its low dike north of the Yorba Bridge (today’s Imperial Blvd.) and began its mad rush toward the hills. The area of greatest destruction occurred in the Latino settlements of Atwood and La Jolla where homes were crushed like matchboxes. Complete families lost their lives as the flood and debris overtook them as they slept. Nineteen people eventually lost their lives in the County, most in these two locations.
Flood debris carried by high water created dams at the Jefferson St. (today’s Tustin Ave.) and Santa Fe Railroad trestle bridge, causing the water to again back up and spill over the river dikes. The water spread as an unbroken sheet toward Anaheim, Buena Park and Garden Grove on its way to the ocean.
By 4:15 A.M. when Utility Dept. operator Orin Morey sounded the first warning whistle at the South Los Angeles St. Powerhouse, water was already moving rapidly through Anaheim’s downtown. As floodwaters filled the basement of the Telephone Co. building on North Lemon, all phone communication to the outside world was lost. Nine amateur, short wave radio operators are credited with notifying the rest of the state about Orange County’s plight.
Anaheim’s beautiful new La Palma Park was completely devastated. Fourteen tall palm trees were washed away, eight of which were never recovered. Houses on Paulina St. were washed out, one house floated to Olive Street. Thirty unmilked cows paddled with the river down La Verne St. The Japanese settlement at North Citron St. and West La Verne was completely washed away.
Floating buildings knocked down power lines throwing most of north Anaheim into darkness. Over 140 water services were broken by moving homes, causing dangerously low water pressure in the community. Contaminated water wells added to the risk of flood borne disease, requiring the emergency installation of a chlorinator and the boiling of drinking water.
Center Street
Local residents used everything from rowboats,
doors strapped together as rafts and horses in
order to North Paulina Street. Center Street
became a rushing river with wooden orange crates,
lost pets and other debris floating on the current.
City workers using high wheel trucks and heavy
equipment braved the heavy river currents to
rescue many residents stranded along La Palma
Ave. Vern Wright, veteran City Lineman, almost
lost his life as his City flatbed truck was washed
away at La Palma and Claudina Sts. by the six-foot
deep water.
Cleaning up along Center Street
Since the flood occurred in the early morning hours, many residents were unable to flee, even after the fire whistle at the powerhouse sounded. Five local people lost their lives to the flood. Anaheim’s Police Chief, James S. Bouldin had a force of 105 men, including National Guard, patrolling the north end of town to protect from looting. All out of town traffic was stopped and questioned before driving into the area of damage.
The Red Cross began to erect tent cities in the north part of Anaheim as well as it Atwood as soon as the floodwaters receded.
400 refugees were housed and fed at the American Legion Hall in Placentia. Anaheim’s YMCA building on South Philadelphia St. fed and provided shelter for over 200 homeless Latinos. Typhoid immunizations were started as soon as possible in the refugee camps as protection against disease.
Once the water drained away, the muddy oil slicked streets dried out and small dust storms blew throughout town, further adding to the resident’s plight.  The stench of the flood will always be remembered by survivors.  Restoration started immediately, road rebuilding, water and electric line repair was carried on day and night. Downtown store owners began to deal with flooded basements, damaged merchandise and a thick layer of oily mud that covered almost everything in sight.  Seventy-seven homes and businesses in town were posted with “Unsafe to Occupy” warnings.
WPA crews already in Anaheim for water and electric line improvements were transferred to cleanup duties. Their efforts added to the work done by the City employees as well as private contractors. WPA operated two dump trucks working 21 days hauling 378 loads of mud off the streets. The County’s new sewer outfall facility in Fountain Valley was practically washed away and allowed untreated sewage to run down the Santa Ana River.
By mid summer, most local devastation was a memory. This flood, causing $12 million in damage, finally brought about the construction of Prado Dam, a plan that had been discussed since the early 1920’s. Today’s legacy of the 1938 flood is vivid memories by local old-timers, yellowing photos and newspaper articles crying out the death and destruction. Underneath some homes in old downtown some dried flood mud cakes recall a morning that some residents will never forget.
Will it ever happen again?