70 years ago the city of Vanport flooded, memories from resident - KPTV - FOX 12

70 years ago the city of Vanport flooded, memories from residents are still 'clear as a bell'

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Image: City of Portland archives Image: City of Portland archives
PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) -

On May 30th, 1948, the Portland area bore witness to one of the biggest natural disasters in state history.

On that Memorial Day, the entire city of Vanport, home to more than 20,000 people, was washed away in a matter of hours.

For Ed Washington, the memories are, in his words, clear as a bell.  Washington was 11-years-old at the time.

"That morning, when we got up, there was a notice on everybody's doorstep," Washington said. "It said don't panic. There's a possibility the dikes will not hold, but they said we really don't think that will occur."

Hastily built during World War II to house the workers in Portland's shipyards and their families, Vanport at its peak was Oregon's second largest city, and also home to the state's largest population of African-Americans.

Washington said he was walking with his mother to go look at the swollen Columbia River when the sirens went off, informing residents that one of the dikes protecting the city had failed.

The river had torn a hole through a railroad embankment and water began rushing into the city, which Washington said he saw looking back down on Vanport from what is now I-5.

"I saw this one great big wave of water. And a lot of people didn't see it," Washington said. "But very shortly thereafter, the second wave came, and everybody saw that one. And that, the conversation just turned immediately to just this collective gasp."

Before his family's eyes, the river claimed their homes.  

"There were units just floating everywhere and crashing into each other.  And I saw people on top of the units," Washington said. "And all of a sudden, it was very clear to everybody there that there was not going to be any sweeping out. There was not going to be any going back."

In a matter of just a few hours, the residents of Vanport were suddenly homeless.

"Suddenly all of this was gone," Senator Jackie Winters, who was 7-years-old at the time of the flood said. "And just as suddenly, you're scattered all over Portland. In foreign territory."

Winters said she and her family considered Portland itself "foreign" because the city, at the time, was not particularly welcoming to black residents.

"Portland did not like Vanport. They didn't want Vanport. And they didn't want what all came into Vanport," Winters said.

After the flood, Washinton and Winters bounced from school to school until their families found a permanent place to live.  

For Washington, it was two-and-a-half years of instability. As he got older, he said, he began to realize the stark differences between Vanport, which had always felt like home, and post-war Portland, which did not.

"The unemployment for African Americans was over 50%. African American men, you were lucky if you could get a janitor's job," Washington said.

Washington would go on to find better jobs, graduate with a degree from Portland State University and eventually become the first African American elected to the Metro Council.

Looking back though, he now sees Portland as having a long history of failing its black community from the months after the flood, to discriminatory housing policies and gentrification.

"I can just go where I used to live," Washington said.  "I look at Williams Avenue. I look at the area of the Coliseum. I look at Emanuel Hospital area. I look at all of northeast Portland. Why is it that we could never get there when black people were there?"

But Williams said he now also sees the catastrophic flood that claimed his childhood home as a critical turning point in Portland's history, that forced the city into a long and difficult conversation about racial discrimination that continues today.

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