A Look Back:

Flood of ’38 was county’s worst natural disaster

Heavy rains caused Santa Ana River to jumps its banks, sweeping cars, people away for miles.

May 16, 2009|By Joseph Serna

There was a time when the Santa Ana River was more than a dried out, paved vein leading from the San Bernardino mountains through Orange County to a mouth between Newport and Huntington beaches.

More than 70 years ago, the Sana Ana River was the lifeblood of the county’s agricultural development. But it also doubled as a deadly force; it was one that, in the years before 1938, people had dismissed after years without incident.

Between February and March 1937, more than 15 inches poured down on Southern California. In February the next year, it was just under 10, according to Los Angeles Times articles at the time. But that downpour in February proved too much. Months of rain leading up to March 3, 1938, including five consecutive days, spelled disaster for thousands in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and the rest of Orange County.


The Santa Ana River spilled over its banks, turning the entire region into a shallow lake.

According to a Los Angeles Times article revisiting the incident 10 years ago, 58 people were killed in the Flood of 1938. The government estimated at the time the damage at more than $14 million. It is still considered the worst natural disaster in Orange County history.

Every bridge along the river’s path to the ocean was destroyed. Homes, cars and bodies were swept down river for miles. In the weeks after in Newport Beach and neighboring coastal cities, the government issued a two-week quarantine for people who hadn’t received a smallpox vaccination in five years to stave off an outbreak.

According to an April 8, 1938, article in The Los Angeles Times, doctors saw an increase in cases of scarlet fever, measles, smallpox, chicken pox, the common cold and the flu after the flood. Most Newport Beach Elementary School and Newport Harbor High School students were vaccinated, while 250 kids in Costa Mesa were equally treated.

The flooding was so bad inland that pilots had to airlift food to Palm Springs.

Following the disaster, the city embarked on a $1.3-billion mission to secure the Santa Ana River from future flooding, creating dams and securing its pathway to the Pacific.

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