Where We Live: The Vanport flood

The story of Vanport, and its destruction, is an important part of where we live

A building floats in water during the Vanport flood (Courtesy the Skanner Newspaper)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — This Memorial Day marks the 68th anniversary of the Vanport flood, one of Portland’s greatest disasters.

The dike holding back the Columbia River broke on Sunday, May 30, 1948. Betty Jones was 8-years-old.

“This loud sound went forth throughout our community, and we looked toward the sound and there was that water,” she remembers. “It just started rushing towards us.”

Betty Jones remembers good times in Vanport before the flood destroyed the city (KOIN)
Betty Jones remembers good times in Vanport before the flood destroyed the city (KOIN)

The flood killed 15 people. Nearly 20,000 escaped to higher ground. Oregon’s second largest city was washed away in an instant.

“The bodies floating on the waters, and babies floating on the water, adults floating on the water, those that drowned and those on the rooftops who were waiting to be rescued. That’s the memory I have of that particular day,” survivor Mariah Taylor tells KOIN 6 News.

Newspaper coverage of the Vanport flood (KOIN)
Newspaper coverage of the Vanport flood (KOIN)

Vanport was the nation’s largest public housing development. It was built for workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. Many Vanport residents were African-Americans from the south, representing the largest influx of African-Americans in Oregon history. That included Jones and her parents, who moved from Arkansas.

“It was an opportunity for my dad to raise his family,” she says.

Vanport was segregated, but not the schools or public areas. After the flood, the black community settled into North and Northeast Portland. Today’s gentrification means many of those families are displaced again, and the impacts of a flood nearly 7 decades ago are still being felt.

“It’s very sad, because that’s the root of where we were and where we came from,” Jones says.

Efforts are underway to establish a Vanport memorial at Delta Park. Vanport Mosaic, which has events to commemorate the flood, is working with students from Madison High School to rename it Vanport Park.

The Skanner newspaper also has an ongoing project to document the Vanport story.

Devastation from the Vanport flood (Courtesy the Skanner newspaper)
Devastation from the Vanport flood (Courtesy the Skanner newspaper)

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