Rains Pale Next to Great O.C. Floods : Records: Despite one death and damages, this year’s deluge was less devastating than earlier ones because Santa Ana River did not overflow.
Although this month’s record rainfall is blamed for one death and more than $25 million in damage to public facilities, Orange County has weathered worse.
Major flooding has occurred several times this century, said Al Nestlinger, chief of the hydrology section of the county Environmental Management Agency. This year’s deluge was less devastating than earlier ones, he said, in large part because the Santa Ana River did not overflow its banks.
This time the county’s drainage channels were clearly overtaxed, Nestlinger said, but “a much smaller area was affected than in 1916 or 1938 (when) everything from Buena Park to Huntington Beach got flooded. Those were river floods.”
The massive destruction caused by heavy rainfall in March, 1938, prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build Prado Dam on the Santa Ana River in Corona.
Orange County’s biggest flood on record was in 1862, when the river raged out of control. The destruction was not great, historians write, only because the area was sparsely inhabited.
In the center of Anaheim, four miles from the Santa Ana River, water stood four feet deep “and spread in an unbroken sheet to Coyote Hills three miles beyond,” author J. M. Guinn wrote in “A History of California, Los Angeles,” published in 1915.
That flood, he wrote, brought from the mountains and canyons “great rafts of driftwood, which were scattered over the plain below the city and furnished fuel for the poor people of the city for several years.”
Longtime residents have vivid memories of deluges that have swamped Orange County over the years.
Richard Bradley, 86, a retired Santa Ana policeman, recalls a flood in January, 1916. “I was standing on the porch begging my dad to let me walk out in the water, which was up to my hips,” he said.
His father took the family by buggy to a grandmother’s house in Orange.
Four people died in that flood, historians report, and a large swath of Orange County from north of Villa Park to the ocean and from the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains to Long Beach became a lake. The cities of Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton and Tustin were marooned after highways and railroads were cut off by the high water.
Don Martinson, 65, executive director of the Santa Ana River Flood Protection Agency, remembers the 1938 storm.
The Santa Ana River, fed by a five-day downpour that dumped 22 inches of rain in the San Bernardino Mountains, jumped its banks north of Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, flooding all of western Orange County and washing out bridges and the sewage treatment plant in Fountain Valley.
“Over the radio they broadcast that everyone should go to the city hall, which was the tallest building in the city,” said Martinson, who was 8 years old at the time and living with his family in Anaheim.
“Dad loaded us up in a ’34 Chevy, and the water picked the car up and floated it down Citron Street like it was a boat,” he recalled. “When it hit a dry spot on a hill, we got out and waded back to the house.”
The flood of 1938 was the most destructive in the county’s recorded history, killing 58 people and causing $12 million in property damage. Among the dead were 43 residents of a Mexican settlement in Atwood that was swept by an eight-foot wall of water.
George Osborne, 79, former director of the Orange County Environmental Management Agency and former head of the county flood control district, remembers going with his parents, who lived in Fullerton, to see Atwood after the rains stopped. “My memory is of them removing a body. It was coated with mud,” he said.
Adding to the misery, newspaper accounts say, the National Guard had to be mobilized in Anaheim to help police halt widespread looting of homes that had been evacuated.
A flood three decades later, in January and February, 1969, could have been just as serious if not for Prado Dam, which was completed in 1945, Nestlinger said. That deluge still caused about $12 million in property damage, and five people were killed in Silverado Canyon when a wall of mud crashed into a fire station.
In March, 1983, four inches of rain fell in six hours, while seven-foot waves slammed into the county’s 42-mile coastline. That storm knocked out more than half of the Seal Beach Pier and flooded more than 700 homes in Huntington Beach.
Martinson, who was formerly a planning division engineer for the county flood control district, said that in Southern California “you are always going to have landslides and mudslides and flooded streets from winter storms. You never can achieve 100% protection.”
The $1.3-billion Santa Ana River Project, designed to prevent catastrophic flooding by the Santa Ana River, is intended as a backup for Prado Dam, which Martinson said no longer provides adequate protection because of the increasing runoff the river receives from more highly urbanized areas.
That project, being financed jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, is intended to ensure that the Santa Ana River will never again overflow as it did in 1862.
“If that happened today,” Martinson said, “it is estimated we would have 3,000 people killed in Orange County and property damage of $15 billion to $20 billion.”
But Orange County officials said Saturday the Santa Ana River project, scheduled for completion in 2001, could be delayed because about $200 million of Orange County’s remaining share of the funding is tied up in the county’s money-losing investment pool. It is uncertain how much money will be available for the project.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who toured the river project Saturday, acknowledged there will be “a shortfall” in county funding. “In the next couple of months it will be a major area of discussion,” he said.
“We’ve got to find the funds and it has got to be a priority of the local officials as well, because the funds have got to come from the local area,” he said. “No magic wand is going to be waved and no money is going to appear from the federal government to take the place of money irresponsibly spent by the county treasurer.”