Vanport and the Columbia River Floods of 1948


There were houses along the road, and people
sitting out on their chairs and so forth just enjoying the sunshine, there was beautiful
weather, and the water coming to the back of these buildings. They couldn�t see the
water. And so we yelled to them, �The flood is coming! Get outta here!� That type of
thing. I remember one man was very upset and swore at us like crazy. We shouldn�t be
scaring people like that. Anyway, he walked to the end of the house, and looked and saw
the water. He gave a yell. And I don�t know what happened from then on, because I was
too busy pedaling my bicycle to get out of there. Prior to the 20th Century, the Columbia River
was a wild undammed river. Prone to frequent seasonal floods, the river had a life and
rhythm of its own. In the early 20th century a few small dams were built, but these had
little effect on the river as a whole. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt�s
New Deal, construction on two massive dams on the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee and
the Bonneville, was undertaken in the 1930s. The dams were built primarily for the production
of hydroelectric power, while the Grand Coulee was also intended to provide irrigation to
adjacent areas in eastern Washington. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was one of the prime contractors
in the building of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams. Early in World War II, Henry Kaiser became
involved in the building of ships for the British Government as part of their war effort.
By the time the U.S. entered the war, Henry Kaiser had the connections to land large U.S.
shipbuilding contracts. Eventually, seven Kaiser shipyards were established during the
war on the West Coast, to build mostly Victory Ships. Three of these were located in the
Portland area; two in Portland including one on Swan Island, and one in Vancouver Washington. An influx of workers for shipbuilding and
the war industry helped bring about housing shortages in Portland early in the war. A
Housing Authority of Portland was created not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor,
but a lack of federal housing funds through early 1942 left the city unable to build sufficient
new housing. Henry Kaiser couldn�t wait, so he appealed
to the United States Maritime Commission for funding to build �the most spectacular of
all� wartime housing projects. With $26 million in approved funds, he built his own
city, Kaiserville, which later came to be known as Vanport. The project was built in
the flood plain of the Columbia on 650 acres of reclaimed land. The city, effectively a housing project, was
located at the present site of Delta Park, Portland International Raceway and the Heron
Lakes Golf Course. It was the largest housing project in the United States, and quite likely
the world at the time. Located in the flood plain, it was surrounded
on three sides by dikes, and on the fourth side by a railroad berm, built in 1907. Because
it was originally intended to provide only temporary housing, buildings were simply made
of wood and set on wooden foundations. The entire project was conceived, designed, and
built in the span of one year. There was just one entrance to Vanport, at
Denver Avenue. The first residents of Vanport moved in, in
December 1942. At its peak, it was said to be the second largest city in Oregon with
close to 40,000 residents. Prior to 1940, there were fewer than 1,800 African-Americans
residing in the entire state of Oregon. A large percentage of the war-workers recruited
into Portland were African-American. While Vanport effectively segregated the burgeoning
black population from much of the rest of Portland during the war, life within Vanport
provided the opportunity for further integration than was occurring elsewhere in Portland and
the rest of Oregon. Approximately 40 percent of the population of Vanport was African-American
during the war; with schools, churches and recreational facilities integrated. The first
black teachers and policemen in the state of Oregon were hired in Vanport. However,
it was still not completely integrated. The hospital was segregated, and for the most
part, so was housing. After the war, the population dropped rapidly as many war-time workers left.
However, in their place, veterans began to move in. At the time of the flood, the population
had stabilized at around 18,500 residents. To help prepare residents for the post war
economy, Oregon funded the Vanport Extension Service, which was the predecessor to Portland
State University. By volume, the Columbia River is the largest
river in North America draining into the Pacific Ocean. Stretching over 1200 miles from its
headwaters in southern British Columbia to its mouth on the Oregon Washington state line,
the river drains over 250,000 square miles. Some of the larger tributaries into the Columbia
include the Kootenay River, the Pend-Oreille, the Spokane River, the Columbia�s largest
tributary, the Snake, and the Willamette River. The Columbia discharges on average, 265,000
cubic feet per second into the Pacific Ocean. Late spring flooding in 1948 would produce
4 times that flow. The winter of 1947 to 1948 over the Pacific
Northwest was not particularly remarkable. When measurements of the snow pack across
the region were made on April 1st, water content in the Columbia River Basin ranged from above
normal across southern British Columbia, western Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington
and northern Oregon, to a little below normal over southeast Oregon and southern Idaho. On April 1st forecasts from the Soil Conservation
Service, the Weather Bureau, and the Department of Lands and Forests, Water Rights Branch
British Columbia, all indicated an outlook for high Spring runoff that could result in
high river stages. This was based on an assumption of near-normal rainfall for April through
June. For a scenario of �precipitation near the
record maximum,� the Weather Bureau indicated �flows considerably above normal but, with
the exception of the Spokane, nowhere approaching the record maximum.� While there was nothing to suggest floods
of a great magnitude at that point, the weather from mid-April through mid-June proved critical
in changing the situation. From mid-April through mid-May, the weather was abnormally
cold and wet, adding to the snow pack over much of the basin at a time when it normally
begins to diminish. From mid-April through mid-May, the mean flow
pattern at 300 mb, about five and a half miles high, showed a steering current for incoming
storms that originated over the Bering Sea. This brought abnormally cold and wet weather
to the Pacific Northwest, adding to the snow pack over the northern part of the basin and
delaying the snowmelt over southern part of the basin. The second half of May brought a distinct
change in the weather pattern. A steering flow from mid-May to mid-June at 300 mb brought
systems up from the south-southwest, with systems coming in from the much warmer Pacific
off the California coast. A pattern of above normal precipitation, but
with much warmer temperatures was the result. This in turn initiated a period of rapid snowmelt
throughout the Columbia River Basin. The weather conditions leading up to this
flood were really interesting. I tend to think of floods we have in the wintertime, anytime
from November through March, as primarily being driven by heavy rain, and floods that
we have in the Spring-time more being about snowmelt. I think looking at this event, what
you find out is that it�s not that clear cut, that snowmelt definitely was a big factor
in this event. We had a large snowpack, above normal, especially in the northern part of
the Columbia Basin up into Canada. We continued to build that snowpack all the way into early
May, and then in mid-May we saw a big changes in weather conditions and a rapid warm-up,
and we quickly melted a lot of that snow. But, another big part of that scenario was
that we also had quite a bit of rain along with those warmer temperatures in May, and
so this was a flood where snowmelt was definitely a much larger component than what we typically
see here in the wintertime. But, rainfall was also a big component of what led to this
historic flood on the Columbia River. By the first of May, Weather Bureau and Soil
Conservation Service forecasts recognized the likelihood of damaging Spring floods.
The Weather Bureau in its water supply forecasts for the Columbia Basin stated: �By and Large,
April precipitation over the Columbia Basin was unusually large, and runoff forecasts
have been modified upwards very considerably over most of the area. The Clark Fork-Pend
Oreille, Spokane, and Clearwater Basins are forecast to have very large runoffs exceeding
in places the maxima of record. Flood hazards have increased on the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille,
the Spokane and its tributaries, the Clearwater, the Kootenai, and the main stem of the Columbia
River.� Flooding troubles first occurred on May 20th,
with flash flooding along Moses Creek in northeast Washington. Several miles of track and bridges
of the Great Northern Railway were washed out with the loss of one life. In the following week, flood issues multiplied
on the Columbia River and its northern tributaries. On May 23rd, the first dike failure occurred
along the Kootenai River in Idaho. Peak flows on the Flathead River and Clark Fork in Montana
were reached, while Catherine Creek flooded parts of the town of Union OR. On May 27th,
the Columbia overflowed its banks at Hanford WA., and 5000 persons were evacuated. Just how high the Columbia would rise and
how fast was unknown. Weather Bureau forecasts issued on the 25th of May for the Columbia
River at Vancouver called for river levels to hold just over 23 feet through the 29th
of May. In Vanport, the Housing Authority of Portland
began routine patrols of the north and south dikes, as water levels approached those of
a flood two years earlier. Patrols were later increased to include the west dike. The Housing Authority communicated with the
Army Corps of Engineers regarding the structural integrity of the dikes, and reported they
had 47,000 sacks of sand, 150 trucks and a standby crew of at least 50 men available. In the ensuing days the river continued to
rise, and so the forecasts also had to rise. By the 28th of May, forecasts were calling
for the river to reach 30 feet by the 1st of June. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority
went to 24 hour a day operations. With the Columbia rising rapidly, sandbagging
and the building of temporary dikes was going on seemingly everywhere. By the 28th, flooding had become widespread,
not just along the main stem of the Columbia and its northern tributaries, but also in
the Fraser and Skeena River Basins in British Columbia. Late May and early June flooding
of the Fraser River severed the two Canadian transcontinental rail lines, inundated the
Trans-Canada Highway, and breached 12 diking systems to flood over 50,000 acres. In the U.S., peaks were reached on the Flathead
and Bitterroot Rivers in Montana, and the St. Joe River and the Kootenai River at Bonners
Ferry in Idaho. Seven miles of mainline Great Northern Railway were underwater near Kootenai,
and 40,000 acres of diked land was flooded. On the lower Columbia, shipyards at Washougal,
Camas, Vancouver and Ridgefield Washington were shut down, with the Camas-Washougal port
under 5 feet of water. On May 29th, the Columbia River highway between
The Dalles and Cascade Locks Oregon was closed, and 1400 people were evacuated near Vancouver
Washington. A meeting of the Red Cross, the Housing Authority
of Portland, and local governments was held on the 29th, where the possibility of an evacuation
of Vanport was discussed. The Housing Authority reported they had emergency housing for 1500
people available, with the Red Cross indicating they had housing for an additional 7500 people.
There was no decision made regarding an evacuation. Another meeting was scheduled for Monday May
31st. Around 4 am on the 30th, a sheet of paper
appeared under the door of each residence in Vanport. Intended to be reassuring, the
note offered advice on actions residents should take. However, it did not necessarily produce
a calming effect. It concluded with the statement, �Dikes are safe at present. You will be
warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don�t get excited.� An investigation
later revealed that it was prepared by a Housing Authority employee. Numerous sightseers gathered in areas adjacent
to the Columbia River. As early as 10:30 am, a patrol found seepage on the railroad dike.
Men were put to work within thirty minutes with sandbags, but messages throughout the
day repeated there was no immediate danger. Three of my buddies and I, decided that we
were going to go down and see the flood. The thing that we were so interested in, was at
Jantzen Beach, we had heard that the rollercoaster was completely standing in water. So we decided
that we would go down and see this thing. We didn�t think that water would ever get
that high. So we started off from our house, and got on our bicycles and rode down through
Vanport over into Jantzen Beach, and saw the rollercoaster that was in the water. But there
wasn�t much else to see, and so we decided we would go home. At 4 pm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
reported that the ground level of Vanport was 15 feet below the level of the Columbia
River and Smith Lake. At 4:17 pm a break occurred in the railroad
berm on the west side of Vanport. A wall of water 10 feet high roared through the break,
knocking down buildings near Vanport College. Students and faculty working to remove school
records at the time, scattered throughout Vanport to warn others of the impending flood. We ran on to a drug store. And so we went
in to get candy, and I remember instead of getting candy, I got sunflower seeds. And
just as I paid for the sunflower seeds, the air raid sirens went off. Now, these were
very loud. Now this really spooked us, so we went out to find out what in the world
was going on. There was a police officer in the middle of the street directing traffic,
and we saw an elderly lady walk up to him and ask him, what the sirens were for. And
he said, �Lady, the dike has broken. Get to high water, I mean high ground.� So we
started riding down the street, and it wasn�t long before we got to the place, that we caught
up to the cars ahead of us. We were able to go faster than the cars. So, we swung out
and started to go on the side of the road, and soon as we swung out we realized we could
see the water coming from the dike. We were heading straight toward the dike that broke.
To get where we wanted to go, we had to go about a half a block more toward the dike.
We started pedaling just as fast as we could pedal, not realizing we could pedal, not realizing
the bikes could go that fast. The first waves of flood waters initially
filled up the sloughs around Vanport. This process took over a half an hour, providing
a crucial window of time in which many residents were removed from danger. Taxis and numerous
buses from the Portland Traction Company arrived to aid in the evacuation efforts. Once the
sloughs had filled, waves washed through the rest of Vanport all the way to near Denver
Avenue on the east side of town, flooding cars and tearing houses from their foundations.
Within a couple of hours of the break, a gauge on the Willamette River indicated the river
had dropped 3 inches as a result of the water flowing into Vanport. What you had once those houses were lifted
off of the wooden foundation, then they, with the water coming in so fast, swirling, houses
were just floating and moving, and there were people on top of the roofs. So yeah, it was
just a matter of 40 minutes, maybe an hour and 40 minutes from the time we got out and
standing up on there, and Vanport was no more. It was just totally destroyed, and everything
in it was gone. Boats were called in to rescue people stranded
on roofs and the upper floors of the buildings. The Sheriff�s Office implemented a more
organized search for survivors in the evening, and by
9 pm it was believed that none were left stranded in Vanport. The Red Cross established an emergency headquarters
in downtown Portland, and numerous area schools, churches and civic buildings were set up to
house refugees. We heard all this noise, of people running
through the dorm that wanted, kept yelling �Help! We need help! We need help!� And
so we finally went to the door and said, �What do you mean by help?� �Well we need all
the people we can get to set up some army camps in all the churches, and all the schools
here in north Portland.� Well that�s no problem, so went out and we went from church
to school to church to school setting up army cots. And, we worked all night long, and early
the next day we finally got back to the campus and just collapsed. We put a register in every church, and every
school that we were in that night. And these people were wandering from one church to the
next school to the next church, seeing, �cause we started, made everybody make sure that
they signed their name if they were staying there all night. And, so this went on for
some time you know. And these people would come in there and they would look on the list,
�Oh� they said, �Joe and Alice are here.� And then they would reunite, so that was very
nice. And so then, it was just more and more people. But I�ll tell you, we had set up
so many army cots, I didn�t want to see one again. Many private citizens also opened up their
homes to provide emergency housing. National Guard Troops arrived and aided in
a search for casualties late Sunday night and Monday. The initial search did not yield
any fatalities. Concern over the safety of the berm on which
Denver Avenue was built grew during the day Monday. As a Portland General Electric Company
vehicle travelled down Denver Avenue, the berm collapsed, submersing the vehicle and
killing the lone driver, becoming the first confirmed casualty of the Vanport flood. The
gap quickly widened allowing some Vanport buildings to float east of Denver Avenue. In the end, it was determined that the Vanport
flood claimed 15 lives. It was also acknowledged by the Multnomah County Coroner�s Office
that there may have been other victims whose bodies were never located. At 630 pm May 31st, the Columbia River at
The Dalles hit a maximum flow of 1 million, 10 thousand cubic feet per second. Imagine
180,000 filled bathtubs going by every second. Backwater from the Columbia pushed the Willamette
River at Portland to a peak stage of 29.95 feet just before noon on June 1st. Flood waters reached Union Station. The Army
Corps of Engineers ordered a mass evacuation of both sides of the Columbia River below
Portland. The Lewis River in Washington, backed up by
the Columbia, threatened the town of Woodland with a flood similar to Vanport. The Corps
of Engineers suspended river traffic below Portland. They were concerned that waves caused
by boats might break through the dikes, which were already nearly overtopped and softened
by the prolonged period of high water levels. On June 2nd, the dikes failed in the already
evacuated town of Woodland Washington. Eight feet of water flooded the business district.
Also on the second, Pacific Telephone and Telegraph�s cable crossing the Columbia
between Portland and Vancouver broke. Along much of the Columbia, the river remained
at or near its peak flow for two weeks, through the 12th of June. Localized storms on the
9th through the 11th produced flash flooding in northeast Oregon and eastern Washington,
with especially severe impacts along Black Horse Creek, Butter Creek and Thirtymile Creek
in Oregon, and Pine Canyon and Moses Creek in Washington. On the 11th, a dike broke two miles west of
the Portland airport, flooding 10,000 acres, including the airport. Water stood up to ten feet deep in the main
passenger and office buildings. During the night of the 13th and 14th, the
peak stage on the Willamette River at Portland was reached at 29.98 feet, while the Columbia
River at Vancouver crested at 31 feet, which was 15 feet above flood stage. Through the rest of June the river slowly
receded, finally dropping below flood stage in July. To me it�s interesting that we call this
flood the Vanport Flood, because it really affected much of the Pacific Northwest, up
and down the Columbia River all the way from the Canadian border down to the mouth of the
Columbia River at Astoria. But, in spite of all that area that was affected, that this
flood has come to be known as the Vanport Flood. It was never rebuilt, and many lives
were lost. Many people lost everything that they owned in the flood, and you just don�t
see that kind of impact in most of the floods that we have here in the Pacific Northwest. Vanport ceased to exist after May 30th. The
entire population was forced to relocate, which effectively started the process of racial
integration in the city of Portland. Vanport College, �the college that wouldn�t
die,� relocated to the southwest part of downtown Portland. It eventually became Portland
State University, the university with the largest enrollment of graduate and undergraduate
students in the state of Oregon. The Vanport Flood of 1948 is one of the exceptional
floods in our history here in the Pacific Northwest and in the Portland area. Some of
the other big floods that we think of are February of 1996, December of 1964, then of
course you can back into the late 1800s, 1861, 1894 some of the other big floods that we�ve
had historically. The volume of water coming down the Columbia
River during the historic 1948 flood has not been matched since. This is at least in part
attributable to changes made in how the river is monitored and even controlled. In subsequent
years, the 1948 flood was responsible for several key changes to how the threat of flooding
is handled. Out of the �48 Flood. there came the motivation
to provide river forecasting services for the Columbia Basin and the Northwest River
Forecast Center was formed at least in part as the result of the 1948 Vanport Flood. In late 1949, The National Weather Service
created the Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland. Its primary mission is to save
lives and decrease property damage in the Columbia River Basin by the issuance of flood
warnings and river stage forecasts. By actively developing and incorporating scientific methodologies
into the river forecast process, vast improvements have been made in river forecasting capabilities.
Forecasts made by the River Forecast Center are the primary guidance used by local Weather
Service Forecast Offices in the issuance of flood watches and warnings. So what is the legacy of the Vanport Flood?
There were a lot of things that came out of this flood event. How we viewed water management
in the Columbia Basin changed drastically after this flood. For one thing, it heightened
awareness of the need for safe levees and dikes to protect areas that are near the river.
Prior to 1948, really the emphasis of dams being operated in the Pacific Northwest was
to provide water for irrigation, and also to provide hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric
power supported a lot of the war-related industrial development here in the Pacific Northwest.
Aluminum plants were built, there was just a lot of large industrial construction throughout
the Pacific Northwest that was really dependent on this new source of electricity. So after
�48, it was recognized that not only do we need dams for irrigation and hydroelectric
power, but also we need them for flood control. In 1950 the United States Congress passed
the Flood Control Act of 1950, which authorized flood control projects in Montana, Wyoming,
Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. This led to a handful of new dams for flood
control in the Columbia River basin, including the Priest Rapids Dam, John Day Dam, and The
Dalles Dam. Dam building continued in later years. Several
projects were completed in British Columbia to help regulate flow, including the Mica
Dam, which was authorized by the Columbia River Treaty in 1961. After the Vanport Flood,
the Army Corps of Engineers also began to actively regulate the flow of the river to
minimize flood flows. Given the changes and advancements in weather
and river forecasting, and the regulation of the flow of the Columbia, it is natural
to wonder if such a flood could happen again. So let�s suppose that we had the same weather
conditions now that we had in 1948. My expectation is that we would not see the magnitude of
flooding that we saw in 1948, because of the water management that�s in place, some of
the large flood control reservoirs that were put in in Canada and in the United States
after that 1948 flood. I think with the presence of those reservoirs, it�s likely that the
peak flow and the amount of flooding would be much lower in the Portland area, Portland
and Vancouver than what we saw in 1948. With all of the significant improvements in
river monitoring, modelling, controlling and forecasting, the likelihood of seeing another
flood on the Columbia as significant as the Flood of 1948 seems remote. However, as shown
by more recent floods such as those in February of 1996, floods will continue to be part of
life along the Columbia River and along the many other rivers and streams of the Pacific
Northwest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *