On the night of October 18, 1940, Magdalena Salas might have normally celebrated the Feast of St. Luke in the nearby city of Olot. Instead, she stayed home and welcomed in neighbors taking refuge from the torrential rains that ravaged many cities, towns, and hamlets in northeastern Catalonia, among them the villages of the Vall d’en Bas.
“The neighbors opened their door and, upon walking outside, saw the wild, deafening water,” she recalled. “Some saw how their house was swept away by the water, and they cried, ‘I lost everything!’”
According to the Meteorological Service of Catalonia, rainfall between October 17 and 18, 1940, was so intense that it exceeded three feet in some parts of the region. Overflow from the Fluvià and Gurn rivers passing through St. Privat and the streams of Joanetes and the Falgars caused the destruction of 380 houses, 165 commercial buildings, 149 shops, and 58 bridges. Some 675 square miles of fields were flooded.
Four-hundred people died. The magnitude of the water was so great that officials met fifty years later to review this tragedy and prepare for if it happened again.
Although all eight villages of the Vall d’en Bas suffered greatly from the heavy rains and flooding, St. Privat was hit the hardest. Among the people who survived were two siblings, Pau and Miquel Sala.
“They had to leave because they saw that the water was rising,” Pau’s wife explained. “From their neighbors’ house, by the light of the lightning, they saw the house was gone. They had to leave only with the clothes they were wearing, as there was no time to take anything else. The water took their piggy bank.”
Miquel’s first memory was precisely of that night. He recalls how his father tried to stop the water from coming into the house by covering the crevices of each door with manure. They, like many others, went to take refuge with Magdalena Salas, but before leaving their home forever, his father wanted to save the cows. He had to give up on the sick one. Toward 1 a.m., Miquel still remembers, his father said to them, “Bye-bye, home.” In that precise moment, the water swept their home and the tavern attached down the river.
Joan Corominas, who was fifteen at the time, recalls that night as well.
“We woke up because there was a lot of lightning and thunder. The gusts of wind were ghastly. And then we saw that the water was rising.”
Joan and his family also took refuge with Magdalena. She couldn’t have known that she was taking in her future husband that night. Joan remembers how difficult it was for some families to let go of their homes.
“I was young and foolish, so I went down by the bridge during the rainstorm. Standing there, I could see a family that resisted leaving their home. Those on the other side of the river put down a ladder so they would be able to reach the safe side of the river, but they did not want to leave. One hour after they left, their house was swept away. That couple’s house was gone.”
Josep Maria Ballester recounts his mother’s memories of the storm: “It was awful scary. Everything was underwater. Everything, the houses, the huts were swept away. Those who lived close the riverbed took things and left for the forest. They had to protect themselves.”
Before the land concentration (or parcel·lària) in 1969, the Vall d’en Bas was a maze of streams and water channels, crossed by bridges and walkways, which converged in the Fluvià River. The bridges were among the first to be destroyed, and by temporarily damming the waterflow they unleashed even greater destructive power.
“There was a bridge that was blocked, and when the water finally found a way through it, it swept everything in its way,” Joan Riera described, retelling the story he heard when he was little. “In our home, it swept a few rooms, but further down it took entire homes. It swept everything. Yes, the cattle descended the river. There were pigs in the water. Nobody was safe.”
Joan Ayats shares a story he heard from Lluís Espuña. That night, the Back Windmill bridge got clogged, and the waters began to flow over and around the mill. Lluís warned his mother, who was taking care of a sick person at the mill. If she wanted to go home that night, she would have to leave soon because they weren’t sure how long the bridge would hold. When she crossed the bridge, the water came to her feet. Soon after, she heard a loud racket. She thought the mill had collapsed, but in the sunlight the next day, she saw that the bridge had gone downstream.
After the storm, the calm. With the clarity of the first rays of sun, locals saw the damage and how the whole plain from El Mallol to Les Preses looked like wetlands.
The Sala siblings recall the day after, combing the riverbed and valley for belongings swept away by the water. Their father even found the sick cow he had left behind the night before. They moved to El Mallol, where they had extended family and continued to work in the family tavern, as they had in St. Privat.
Joan Corominas explained the sense of community that was reinforced during the flood and in the aftermath.
“When there is a fire in a house, for example, neighbors come and help. Here, we were welcomed. We had lost everything, but we were welcomed. Everybody knew to pitch in. And, of course, after the flood passed, after the waters settled, the next day, we got busy reconstructing our lives. But it took a long time to rebuild it.”
“Little by little, we managed to fix it, repairing it, and look what a house we have today,” Carme of Can Palanca, who was five years old in 1940, says of her family’s house. “Little by little, everyone managed to do what they could.”
Some people moved in with relatives, others moved into empty houses, and others became tenant farmers. Eventually, everything went back to normal, thanks in part to the networks of solidarity among residents.
The footprint left by the 1940 flood is so deep that it still shapes local memory in the Vall d’en Bas today. A few years ago, the local magazine Verntallat published a series of accounts by witnesses who lived through this tragedy, so now even younger generations are familiar with the events and stories of that night. The flood disrupted many lives, such as those of the Sala siblings who lost everything, including their piggy bank. But when the sun came up, people worked together to recover their lives. In fact, the Sala family’s sick cow, which they presumed dead, was not only found but lived to work several healthy, productive years.
Arnau Brosa i Planella is an archeology student at the Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona. He is also a member of the Board of Historical Studies of Olot, working on several projects ranging from the study of the first peasant communities to the contemporary period in the Garrotxa region of Catalonia.