The Flood: Floating "like corks"

REMEMBER:
DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT
YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE
DON'T GET EXCITED.

Bulletin to Vanport residents from the Housing Authority of Portland, Sunday morning, May 30, 1948


Vanport houses were never meant to be permanent. Constructed on wooden foundations, they floated "like corks" during the flood. Courtesy of Bonneville Power Administration

Vanport's post-war survival efforts came to an rapid halt when in 1948 warm May temperatures rapidly melted snow in the mountains that feed the Columbia. The river's waters rose, passing the 15-foot flood stage early in the month. By the 25th, the Columbia and Willamette Rivers reached nearly 23 feet. That day, patrols began checking Vanport's north and south dikes for boils or blisters. Later in the day, patrols checked the the west dike (railroad fill that burst) when Smith Lake's rising waters reached it.


The Columbia floodplain under water, May 1948.
Courtesy of Bonneville Power Administration

Memorial Day morning, May 30, 1948 was calm. Picnics and family outings took many away from Vanport City. At approximately 4:17 p.m. the railroad dike gave way, and water suddenly burst through the dike. Within moments a ten-foot high wall of water crashed into the city near Vanport College, while residents near Denver Avenue attempted to save their belongings.

In Vanport, author Manly Maben describes the flood and the escape time gained due to the sloughs and backwaters in area:

As the surging waves first moved in, they quickly hit the many sloughs. One report described showers of spray 50 feet high upon impact with the slough water. Then, for 35 to 40 minutes a creeping inundation occurred as the sloughs absorbed much of the water. After they were filled and a sheet of water had spread over Vanport, the waves began to roll again; cars were sent careening, houses wrenched apart; the water reached the high part of the project near Denver Avenue, and all vehicular traffic was quickly flooded out. Now the water level rose rapidly. Between 5:00 P.M. and 6:45 P.M. the Willamette River flood gauge dropped three inches during the massive run-off into Vanport.

As the sloughs absorbed the waters and an emergency siren sounded, buses and cars headed up Denver Avenue to escape the flood. While some salvaged belongings, others canoed between the floating buildings rescuing stranded men, women, and children. Thanks to the holiday, rescue efforts, and the absorbancy of the sloughs, only sixteen lives were lost at Vanport that Sunday afternoon.



forward