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

Heavy Loss Averted

Sheriff Martin Pratt of Multnomah county said had there not been a ten minute warning a terrific loss of life would have been inescapable.

Children were the first concern of all on the scene. Some were tossed from the windows as the waters rose to rescuers below.

Some frantic residents of the district, unable to wade through the deepening water, tried to pole themselves to their homes on logs and planks.

Boats later were rushed into the area and began removing those on rooftops.  There was little panic but mothers and fathers could be heard screaming for their children as the water rose.

Within an hour of the disaster, Governor John H. Hall declared a state of limited emergency and authorized the national guard to requisition material and personnel as needed.  Armed guards patrolled in boats to prevent looting.

The injured were too numerous to count.  All available ambulances were mobilized and kept up a steady shuttle service to near-by hospitals.

Hour Set at 4:30

The flood surrounded the two transmitting towers of radio station KGW and cut it off the air at 5:21 p.m., nearly an hour after the dike broke.  At 5:50 p.m. a floating house crashed into one tower and toppled it to the water.

The dike broke shortly before 4:30 p.m. A half hour earlier the army corps of engineers had announced the ground level of Vanport was 15 feet below the level of the Columbia river and Smith lake.

For two days residents of the town had been reassured there was no immediate peril and only a few of the 18,500 tenants had moved as a safety precaution.

There were pitiful scenes at the Red Cross emergency headquarters as homeless flood victims sought news of relatives.  Some were crying and trembling. Others sat on the ground patiently waiting for word.

One woman ran into waist-deep water lapping Denver avenue in frantic search for her child.  The current turned her back and she collapsed sobbing on the bank.

The flagpole with Old Glory atop survived the deluge for almost an hour.  Then a floating house, twirling crazily in the current, nudged the pole at 5:44 p.m. and the pole and flag bowed gracefully into the water.

Sloughs Absorb Shock

Sloughs between the dike break and the housing center absorbed some of the shock, sending showers of spray 50 feet into the air.

Don A. Smith, Vanport, amateur shortwave radio operator, said he was within a few feet of the spot when the break occurred.

He managed to flash a warning, he added, before being forced from the scene by the spreading breach.

His warning along with the shouts of other eyewitnesses to the break alerted the operator of the Vanport warning siren.  The wail of the alarm filled the city's streets with people almost at once.

During the war Vanport housed 42,000 war workers and was Oregon's second largest city and the largest housing project in the United States.

The community is squared on four sides by dikes and highway and railroad embankments.  It was the west dike that broke, cutting a gash 600 feet long.

Oregonian, Portland, OR 31 May 1948


Vanport was dramatically destroyed at 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948, when a 200-foot 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. - wikipedia