After years of drought in the Central Valley, grass — and optimism — return for Hanford residents

Marley Oliver, 6, digs into a bowl of chocolate ice cream as her mother, Laura Benavides, takes on a root beer float at Superior Dairy in Hanford, Calif.
(Diana Marcum / Los Angeles Times)

The grass in the town square was green again, and "Singing in the Rain" was playing at the restored Art Deco theater downtown.

It was maybe a bit warmer than it should have been for March. There were storms expected soon that could bring flooding. And the great California drought might — or might not — really be over.

But there seemed to be a guarded sense of optimism in this Central Valley farm community.

Months ago, when Fox Hanford theater owner Danny Humasom and Zach Rodriguez — the town's most dedicated film buff — chose to show the classic musical, chances were the title would be nothing more than cruel irony. Rain had been scarce for nearly a decade during the worst drought in California's modern history.

"I do remember saying: 'Can you imagine if it rained?'" Rodriguez said. "But it was a wistful thing."

The Hanford Fox Theater marquee advertises "Singing in the Rain."
The Hanford Fox Theater marquee advertises "Singing in the Rain." (Diana Marcum / Los Angeles Times)

This week, there was blue sky outside the picture windows at Superior Dairy. Six-year-old Marley Oliver sat in front of a bowl of chocolate ice cream piled as big as a coconut before heading to her tap/ballet class at Miss Vicky's. Her mother, Laura Benavides, dipped into a root beer float with a long spoon.

During the worst of the drought, the sky had hung day after day in a lung-choking haze.

"First we were singing in the rain, and now we're singing in sunshine," Benavides said.

At the movie house snack bar, Jackie Barberick and Michelle Reed sold popcorn and soda in exchange for the theater making a donation to their organization, Paws and Claws.

"We raise money for seniors," Barberick said.

"For seniors' dogs," Reed interjected. "It's even funnier when she says: 'We raise money for spaying and neutering for seniors.'”

Barberick's boyfriend grows corn for cattle. "We have a lot of dairies around here, and it's been tough," she said of the years-long dry spell.

Reed said everyone in the area had suffered in some way. "We feed the United States. It's our economy," she said. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to look around and see green.”

The snowpack is nearly twice the historic average. After record rainfall, there's more worry about dams failing than another year of sucking the water table dry.

But the Central Valley is still sinking from depleted aquifers. And the adage that people forget a drought as soon as it rains isn't true any longer, at least for the people she knows, said Shaka Sudds, 28.

"We had the deep sense that the drought was going to be here for a while — maybe always. We're shaken. We were reminded that we can't prepare for droughts and floods like these," she said.

"I have a lot of friends that are farmworkers, and when it did finally rain days on end, I'd say: ‘Oh, you couldn't go to work again today. I'm sorry.' I know they need the money. But they would always say: 'No, we're grateful. We need the rain.'"

Jason Jones, 37, said that every time it rains, he goes out in his backyard, dances around and throws a squeaky hamburger toy for his dogs.

He said he suspects he'll do it for many years to come, even if rivers overflow.

"We had a real scare," he said. "It's not that easy to shake off."

During the movie, Rodriguez, Sudds, Jones and their friend Sophia Delgado — a Fresno state student — cheered the on-screen splashing in puddles and sang along with the actors, emphasizing certain lines:

Come on with the rain

I’ve a smile on my face ...

After the show, the group mugged under the marquee, with "Singing in the Rain" framed by neon.

Rodriguez threw his arms out, Broadway-style.

"This is how we'll react to rain in Hanford," he said. "For a long time to come."


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