The Vanport, Oregon Flood, A Family History
A City Destroyed in a Day
My parents avidly follow the news coverage of the flooding in Texas. Today they told me the story of the flood and destruction of Vanport City, Oregon and their escape from it. I’ve heard this story before, but only briefly. It was always told as a family joke because the flood destroyed Dad’s grades and he wasn’t sure he’d ever pass Psychology 101. Today, I heard the story of their escape. I’m glad I asked because the memory would have been lost without the telling.
The story of the flood is important not only because of its destruction, but because it helped the cause of racial integration in the City of Portland. Shortly before the US entered WW II, Henry Kaiser contracted with the government to build ships. Most white men were drafted, leaving women and minorities to work the shipyards. Kaiser couldn’t wait for the city to build housing for his shipyard workers, so he bypassed the city, and built his own housing with federal government money.
“Completed in just 110 days, the town—comprised of 10,414 apartments and homes—was mostly a slipshod combination of wooden blocks and fiberboard walls. Built on marshland between the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River, Vanport was physically segregated from Portland—and kept dry only by a system of dikes that held back the flow of the Columbia River.” They called the city VanPort because it was halfway between Portland and Vancouver.
The building of Vanport coincided with an unprecedented influx of African-Americans to the Portland area. “Portland Mayor Earl Riley asserted that “Portland can absorb only a minimum number of Negros without upsetting the city’s regular life.” In 1942 the population of Vanport was 40% African-American. Vanport hired the first black teachers and policemen in the State of Oregon.
As the war ended, people left Vanport and the city tried to attract returning veterans and those with GI grants for schooling. To that end they built Vanport College. My dad became a student at Vanport and worked in the Kaiser shipyards.
On Memorial Day morning, May 30th, 1948, the Portland Housing Authority put out this statement, “Remember: Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.” At 4:17 PM, the dam burst and a ten foot wall of water swept across the area of Vanport College. The residents were not given further warning. Very Katrina-like. More lives would have been lost if it had not been a sunny holiday. Most people were not in their homes when the flood hit.
My dad and mom were on campus at the time the dam burst. Dad was studying. They can’t agree on what Mom was doing, but she was his “date” that day and was there with him.
According to Wikipedia:
Vanport was dramatically destroyed…when a 200-foot (61 m) section of the dike holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a flood, killing 15. The city was underwater by nightfall leaving its inhabitants homeless.
My Parent’s Retelling Their Experience
This is my parent’s account:
Photos of Vanport, Before and After
This is a photograph of the city after the flood.
This monument to Vanport College now stands near Portland State University
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/vanport-oregon-how-countrys-largest-housing-project-vanished-day-180954040/#K8X6gBrXb8VQClse.99http://photos.oregonlive.com/4450/gallery/keeping_the_memory_of_vanport_/index.html
I’m glad my parents own personal story of this time in history was not lost. Do your parents have memories you want to preserve?
Have a good caregiving day!
Next: Preparing for natural or other disasters when caring for the elderly.