A remarkable account of a disaster

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Imagine you’re living in the Midwest in 1928. You awaken to headlines that a dam has collapsed somewhere north of Los Angeles. The flood has killed hundreds of people and wiped out entire towns. You’re worried to death because you have relatives living in what you’re sure was the path of the flood. Did they survive? Then, a week later, maybe, you receive this letter from the family. This letter, itself, nearly disappeared in when the room in which it was stored flooded nearly a decade ago. Only recently, we were able to preserve the letter. Now, it will be part of the upcoming book, “Without Warning; Diary of a Disaster” along with many other first-hand accounts that have never been made public. We’ve changed the names here so that someone else doesn’t accidentally decide to publish it as part of some other book.

What makes this so significant is that Mildred, the wife of the local preacher, wrote this less than 12 hours after the flood wiped out much of their rural town. Her detailed descriptions here will put to rest some rumors that family members have repeated. Also, it provides very accurate accounts of the incorrect information that was already spreading about the dam and its failure.<a

Tuesday, March 13, 1928
Dear Folks,

Well for once in my life, I have a real thrilling letter to write, but I very much fear that it is such recent history that I may not get a very good thrill written into my letter. This afternoon I am going thru the good-for-nothing-let-down feeling that comes to us sometimes.

We don’t know just what to do, when doing is possible, for we do not know just how much the Associate Press may get of the story, and in that way, how much you folks will get out of the flood. Thus far, telephone and telegraph wires are down, so it is impossible to “do” anything to relieve you, although we may be able to do it before the day is over. Of course trains are not running, but I am writing on the faith that the mail will get out of the town in some way before very long.

About ten minutes of three this morning, I was wakened by a strange siren whistle, not like our fire whistle for the town, but strange. I jumped up at once, and in coming through the sitting room tried to turn on the light, but got no light. I looked out the windows for the whistle continued to blow. I could see no fire, but the autos rushed everywhere. I opened the front door, for I could hear people talking. The Pates next door were out looking. They recognized the whistle as the one on the Union Oil Plant, and the fire whistle is run by electricity, but since no juice it couldn’t blow. Well I watched between the back and front door and then the girls both wakened. Finally I heard Mr. Pate leave in his Ford and he returned in a few minutes and said “the dam is going out and we are going to be flooded. Well that didn’t mean much to us newcomers. It proved to be the dam about 35 miles from here — damming up some water for Los Angeles and the report is that it was dynamited, but the general opinion seems to be that it was not that, at all, just old and gave way. We have seen several men who say that they have seen it leaking recently. It seems it was up San Francisco, or some other canyon, northeast of Castaic, which is the little filling station where we leave the “Ridge Route” coming out from Los Angeles, and turn west to our town, about 30 miles from Castaic.

Regardless of how it broke, it broke and the water followed the Santa Clara or some other Santa, river bed, wiping out Saugus, and partly demolishing the towns of Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy. We can picture that the eastern papers may come out in glaring headlines that those towns were wiped away, but Los Angeles ss not apt to so publish it, for sentiment is pretty much against the big city. It certainly was a careless thing to let it go unrepared and so kill dozens of innocent people and damage millions of dollars worth of property, besides scaring the rest of us nearly to death! L.A. will doubtless think it was “dynamited!”

Well, we decided we had better hit higher ground, for everybody was doing it. We dressed in the dark and took some of our belongings with us. If you have ever wondered what you would take with you if you had to leave in a hurry, and in only a car, just tell me what it would be. I got us all dressed, put on my cotton stockings, but my good shoes, because I couldn’t find the old one that got kicked under the bed. (There were some humorous things that really did happen, but let me tell you I’ll take my humor in some other way!) Then I put on my best silk dress and my watch and glasses and my comb. I was ready to go most anywhere, except for my dark brown cotton hose and black shoes. I took the flashlight and gathered up some clothes and chucked them with George’s clergy permit, check book, a pen, the silverware and a pile of kerchiefs, all into the wicker suitcase, which was handiest. We worked in HASTE, let me tell you. No folding of anything, and one dress belt hung out of the suitcase all the time. George got some of his clothes while I went to the girls’ closets and just grabbed all their good clothes. Then I got my sewing machine and a box with some drop cakes (all the food I could think of) and grabbed George’s brief case, which was in my path at one time, and he picked up the small rugs and laid them on his bed and put the vacuum and carpet sweeper up on high places, and away we sailed. We went up on a high place in the city, along with several hundreds of others. The Limbockers, our Sunday School Superintendent, have just bought and moved up on a very high spot, and we headed for that.

By the time we got well started my heart began to act up and kept it up for some little time, so I just preferred to sit quietly in the car, and not walk up the hill to their house. I was pretty sick for a few minutes but got over it while we sat and waited, with all the others, for dawn! The girls went to the house, but George stayed with me. Just ahead of our car, huddled together and sitting on the curbing, was a Mexican family with four little tots, so woe-begone and scared to death. The Mexicans were the hardest hit, for their shanties were many of them on the bank of the river, and they began to warn them at midnight. Many of them just ran up the Ojai and had not come down yet and noon; it is up in the mts. Trucks were used to haul them up on the high places and trucks were busy while we were there. The water must have hit our town about the time we went up there, but the cars were so noisy we couldn’t hear the water. We could finally see the mist over it though. A strange feeling, sitting high and dry and not knowing where your house might be. Strange sights too: one woman in her nighty and coat and carrying her clothing on her arm, and dozens of little Mexican children were barefooted. Unlike some of the Americans, they took their bedding, and each family had a roll of it.

We stayed there until just barely dawn, from about 4:00 until 5:00, and then we left the girls and drove down to the house. Word had been officially given that it was going down, the water that is, so we brought our junk into the house, thankful that we had a house to put it in. Then we drove down by the school where the girls go and viewed a large house washed into the middle of a big street, and went back up to the Limbockers’. Everybody had left by that time, so we talked for a bit, looked at the river, for we could see the broad expanse of the water from up there, and then all of us drove down to see more of it, at just six o’clock. There are eight houses washed into the school grounds. One woman has at least eight wash tubs washed up in her back yard, and she found three little canaries, nearly frozen, and two chickens. The damage is all south of Main Street, for that street didn’t even get wet.

Only the north and south spans of the bridge that we crossed to go up to the oil fields are left standing, and all the houses which were on the west side of the street just north of the bridge are gone. Where to? We don’t know where yet; one woman had a truck in her yard which washed clear from Fillmore. The force of it was terrific but it was not so deep. The report is that there have been thirteen drowned ones found — a white woman and a Mexican woman were found washed into the orchard.

I heard this afternoon, through a woman who came in to phone, that the Assistant to the Methodist pastor, a maiden lady who lived alone, out south, wakened and jumped to her feet and hit water, so jumped back in bed. But she thought, why I can’t stay here, and ran outdoors and a big cloud of water very high enveloped her and washed her two miles west of town where she caught on to a barn roof and clung there. She is living to tell the tale and the sensation! There has been an Edison gang of men camped east of Piru, a regular town of them, and we saw it last Monday. They had canvas roofs and partly boarded up walls to their tents. The reports from there are terrible — so close to the dam, and no warning and they say there are a few of them accounted for. Wouldn’t that be a terrible terrible thing?

The Red Cross opened early and George has been there on duty since twelve. I suspect I could write more when he came, but I presume this will be enough to break your hearts as it is. The long shed across from us is being converted into sleeping quarters this afternoon and P.T.A. had charge of the bed making over there — just dozens and dozens of cots have been hauled in, in trucks. The Chamber of Commerce phoned me a bit ago, needing food. I shall cook a lot of rice soon and have ready for supper time. They feed folks at the Mexican Health center, where George is working. He thought he would be at the hospital door as guard. One Mexican man in there is nearly frantic. He had his three little children in his car. I don’t know anything about his wife. Such stories are rather common by this time of day, but blood-curdling just the same. We offered our church for sleeping quarter, before we had breakfast this morning.

Several of our church families lived down there; one family has half of the house left and know nothing about the other half. That husband has been out of work for months and she has been sick. The others have their houses left, and one family had two extra houses! They all have sisters or children with whom they stay, but oh, the job of cleaning up those houses.

I hear a siren most of the time — the police — and my blood curdles. One is going right now. Folks willing to work have a white rag tied around their arm — and cars have Red Cross stickers on them. The whole town has rallied — merchants have given clothing, food, etc., but it will take a lot.
I don’t have another thought in my mind but FLOOD, so please don’t expect anything else. It is lucky for me that my hair has already turned white — no one will know it is any the whiter after this. Think it is time to close. I will get this mailed so it can go out on the very first train, or truck which carries mail.

Lots of love from all of us to everybody concerned everywhere.

Mildred

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4 responses

  1. Isn’t it amazing how communities, neighbors and strangers pulled together in the aftermath of past disasters. The Red Cross, Churches and individuals all helped one another get through these events. Having been in the largest earthquake to strike North America, I’ve seen this first-hand. There was no FEMA, no government handouts so to speak excepting for military and state assistance to some degree.

    As demonstrated in this letter people helped one another and didn’t really have their hands out asking for help from “Uncle Sam”, most were too proud to ask for assistance. When it was given, it was gratefully accepted.

    Too bad we now live in a “give me free stuff” nation.

  2. Tim Harris sounds like a Republican

    1. I’m not sure whether Libertarian is to the extreme right or the extreme left of Republican. But it doesn’t matter. I have a lot of respect for Tim.
      Where would we be without people who are paying attention to what’s going on and considering remedies?

  3. Michele Harvey | Reply

    Tim, I live near Julian, California. After the Cedar Fire in 2003 devastated our area by burning down half our home and damaging many others, I saw the same selfless responses.

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