Conditions bring Vanport Flood to Mind
by Tom Koenninger
The Columbian, May 28, 2008
"REMEMBER: DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY.
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON'T GET EXCITED."
It was a dead city, a spooky place. This was Vanport City 60 years ago, weeks after it drowned in the Columbia River flood of 1948. The river's maximum height that year was 16 feet above flood stage, as noted on a post at Vancouver's Water Resources Education Center. It was highest since the "great flood of 1894," which hit 18 feet.
Of 18,500 residents living at Vanport City at the time, at least 15 drowned and several were injured in the frantic escape after pressure of the rising Columbia breached the railroad fill acting as a dike. Vanport was located between Denver Avenue on the east, a railroad fill to the west, the Columbia River north and Columbia Slough south.
Today, as Delta Park, the space is occupied by a park and golf course and Portland International Raceway. Artwork on a light-rail station notes the flood.
Vanport was erected by Henry Kaiser in 1943 to house workers who built ships during World War II in three shipyards, including the one in Vancouver. At its zenith, Vanport, sometimes called Kaiserville or the "Miracle City," was the second largest in Oregon, with a population of 40,000.
Vanport contained 9,942 dwelling units, mainly two-story buildings. The buildings measured 38 by 108 feet. There were stores and shops as well.
Although the city was in the flood plain, no one seemed to worry. It was believed protected by sturdy dikes. In fact, the Housing Authority of Portland issued this statement the morning of May 30, 1948: "REMEMBER: DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT. YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY. YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE. DON'T GET EXCITED."
Heavy snowfall in the winter of 1947-48 and warm days in May set the stage for disaster.
Walter Ek, who lives northeast of Battle Ground Lake, remembers the cold winter with abundant snowfall. He and his family moved to their Battle Ground farm five weeks before the flood. Their dairy grew to 25 Jersey cows, and milk was shipped by truck to a Portland milk processor.
"By May 15, it began to get hot," he said. "Heavy rains contributed to the runoff." But still, there was no great concern at Vanport, although patrols of the dikes had started. Then, on a sunny Memorial Day, May 30, a 200-foot portion of the railroad dike blew out at 4:17 p.m. Water gushed through the widening gap, and then another dike failed. Within two hours, Vanport was destroyed.
Grim scene: Houses floating
Ek was now forced to ship milk to Portland by way of the Bridge of the Gods, just west of Stevenson, or the Longview bridge. When he got a look at Vanport, the mental picture he retains is of "all those houses floating around." He also recalls this was a time when there was only one dam, Bonneville, on the Columbia River. Grand Coulee, he said, was still under construction.
My memory of Vanport is of a jumble of houses and buildings torn apart, looking as if they had been struck by a tornado.
My first on-the-ground look at Vanport was as a student at Ridgefield High School. I was a member of a work party led by Mr. Hall, our agriculture and shop teacher, to recover linoleum tiles from the floors of wrecked buildings that had been submerged in the flood. It was dirty, dusty work. I don't remember how the tiles were reused.
Could another Vanport-type flood occur? The snowpack is unusually heavy this year, the Columbia rises and water has flooded some low-lying areas of the Vancouver Lake lowlands. Although it has been an unusual weather pattern, chances of severe flooding similar to 1948 are remote, but "never say never," said Scott Sims, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.
With a network of 35 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers system, 30 percent of the water can be held in storage. Cathy Hlebechuk, hydraulics engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, said Columbia flow measured at The Dalles, Ore., last week was 98 percent of normal.
The forecast for this spring's runoff is that it will be close to normal.
A combination of very warm weather and heavy rain can change all that, as it did in 1948 and 1996. Translation: Don't forget the granddaddy flood of 1894, and don't scrap the Ark.
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