Vanport, OR Dike Break and Flood, May 1948

Flood Destruction at Vanport, Oregon, May 1948 2 Flood Destruction at Vanport, Oregon, May 1948 Devastation at Vanport, Oregon. Original dike break, May 1948

18,500 Made Homeless As Dike Breaks; Scores Injured, Toll Unknown

Bursting through a Smith lake dike, a six-foot wall of water Sunday afternoon engulfed and made a shambles of Vanport and raised fears of loss of life among the housing project's 18,500 residents.

There had been no reports of fatalities at midnight, 7 1/2 hours after disaster struck, but bedraggled survivors told of seeing children and others knocked down and swept along in the brown flood.  Scores of persons were injured, however.  Many suffered from immersion and others were hurt by debris in the water.

The 600-foot break occurred about the middle of the dike on the west side of the city. Smith lake is fed by the Columbia river overflow and the torrent poured in from a level 15 feet above dike-surrounded Vanport....

The Vanport flood descended like a tidal wave with virtually no warning.  The dike had been pronounced safe in the morning.

Occupants of the homes had little or no warning of the approaching torrent.  The first wave hit the first row of houses within a minute after the warning siren shrieked.  It spread out flatly and people ran from the houses to find the water ankle deep.

Another widening break in the dike released a fresh outburst of water which flowed quickly over the first run and rolled through the city at the three-foot level.  Successive breaks raised the waves to about six feet in ten minutes, according to evacuees. The entire city was covered in an hour and by nightfall water was 12 to 15 feet deep.

Reports of bodies floating in the churning, silted waters were numerous, but at midnight the coroner's office had not received confirmation of a single death.  Man of the objects sighted as bodies turned out to be logs.

Residents of the barrack-like city had a few minutes to summon aid.  Emergency crews went into action and every available Portland traction company bus, taxicab, automobile and truck rushed into the low-lying city.

When the water came it came in waves like breakers at the seashore.  Houses were twisted and battered from their foundations.  Other waves followed and sent them spinning in whirlpools into radio towers and power lines.

More than 100 cars were also buried under 12 feet of water.

Some of the cars and a few of the busses, were knocked around like playthings.  A few, their windows closed, floated until waterlogged.

Some of the houses were smashed to bits by the first onslaught of the tidal impact.