Sunday, October 20, 2013

Vanport City and the flood that washed it away

It seemed like everything was moving in America between 1940 and 1945.  Nearly a third of its 1940 population was headed somewhere else.  The military would recruit, train and position 15 million people, 11.5 million overseas.  Back in the USA, another 15 million civilians made a major move to other counties and states.  In those five years, the populations of California, Oregon and Washington grew by over 3,000,000 people as the country armed itself in the new defense industries built or expanded on the west coast.


People who lived in rural America found themselves crowding into urban America, making the kind of money they could never make at home.  Real income rose 40%.  In 1943 alone, 700,000 African Americans moved from the South and 120,000 of them settled in Los Angeles.  More than 160,000 workers came to Oregon during the war years, most of them landing in the shipyards built and owned by Henry J. Kaiser Corporation.  They were recruited from all over the country, brought by special 17 car trains known as Kaiser Karavans.

Vast sums of money were on the move as well.  In 1940, the federal government was spending nearly $10 billion/year and its defense spending was $1.66 billion.  In 1943, defense spending was $44 billion, nearly 70% of federal spending.  In 1945, 90% of federal revenues were going to defense, a total of $65 billion. 

The income tax was extended to nearly all American wage earners, bringing in $45 billion annually in 1945 compared to $8.5 billion in 1939 and the new payroll deduction brought the money in more quickly.  More than $185 billion dollars were raised in the form of War Bonds, purchased in a frenzy of events between 1940 and 1945.  They would fund more than half the total cost of the war.

Materials that were necessary for the war relentlessly changed hands.  Rubber, paper, aluminum, steel were used, returned, piled up and taken away for processing.  Shopping was often an exchange, people buying some things, handing back others.  At the butcher shop, for example, fats were collected and later processed into glycerin for use as high explosives.  Ten pounds of fat made one pound of glycerin.

The shipyards in Portland, abounding in Kaiser’s manufacturing process innovations, seemed like a motion picture speeded up – a ship coming out in 244 days, then 40, then 10, then four and a half.  Along with shipyards in California, Kaiser produced nearly 1,500 Liberty Ships in three years.

Where to put all these people when they weren’t working was a colossal problem.  Production fell off when a war worker could
not get a good night’s rest, could not find daycare for a child or did not have enough room for the family.  The problem in Portland was particularly acute since the Housing Authority of Portland and the city’s Realty Board were averse to building public housing within the city and the Portland Realty Board had drawn strict, red lines around areas where African Americans could either buy or rent.

Oregon had few African Americans because the constitution of the state originally forbade them to live there.  The constitution prohibited in-migration of African Americans, did not allow them ownership of real estate and denied them the right to sue in court.  While the 14th and 15th Amendments to the national constitution voided the language, it remained in Oregon’s constitution until 1927.

There was a small black community of about 2,000 people located mostly where Memorial Coliseum stands today and attitudes of many Portlanders wanted to keep the footprint of African Americans small.   

A petition from the people living in the north end community of Albina, where a handful of African Americans were moving in pre-war, let the City Council know how they felt:

"If it is necessary to bring in large numbers of Negro workers, locate them on the edge of the city.  If they are allowed to fan out through the city it soon will be necessary to station a policeman on every corner."

Kaiser  is second from left, Oregon Governor Charles
Sprague is with him in backseat on 1943 visit by FDR
Kaiser was a restless person who didn’t wait for others to solve the problems that got in the way of his contracts.  Concerned about lost time on the Hoover Dam project, he created a pre-paid health plan, Kaiser Permanente, that kept more of his workers healthy and on the job.  So, in Portland, his company purchased 650 acres along the Columbia River and began construction of a federally funded public housing project outside the city limits at a place called Vanport City.

Kaiser and his brother, Edgar, did most things on a big scale and always in a hurry.  Vanport would become the largest public housing project in the country, home to 40,000 people.  Built with products that were not essential to the war, it was flimsy.  It had wood foundations and only the sparest amenities.  The windows didn’t open.  There were ice boxes, not refrigerators
and ice was unavailable on site until 1943.  A hot plate provided the cooking and also some of the heating.  There was one clothes washing machine for every 28 units.  Construction of Vanport housing was a three shift, 24 hour job.  

Construction began in August of 1942 and people started moving in by December. The noise and lights of construction made sleep difficult for the first residents. The Oregonian newspaper took to calling it “Zoomtown.”  There were 6,000 kids from 46 states crammed into Zoomtown.  Both parents usually worked and the schools took on additional responsibilities for child care. 

There were many discomforts –the mud, the bugs, the vermin, the plastic hotplate knobs always melting off, the pervasive fear of fire – all led people to want to get out.  In 1944, 100 people a week were leaving as they found better housing, and not all were replaced.  

Manley Maben, the expert on daily life in Vanport, describes an additional sense of unease, life in a bowl, surrounded by dikes 15-25 feet high, blotting out the horizon for nearly everyone. When the war ended, Vanport took on another temporary function. 

“Welfare recipients were concentrated there; income-adjusted rents were adopted; large numbers of veterans moved into the area's only available housing (many as college students) and the proportion of black residents rose markedly. But it was still the same impermanent, concentrated project, only older. Its residents still regarded their stay there as temporary, although not as transitory as its wartime population did. Fewer women worked, and being cooped up in Vanport was particularly trying to them. To the very end, life in Vanport remained a unique, and for many, a distressing experience.”

Post war business in the Pacific Northwest turned its attentions and engineering know-how to the Columbia River, the great 1243 mile long river they shared with Canada.  Today, the Columbia River is the most dammed basin the world, home to over 400 dams.  But, as the war wound down, there were just three dams on the main stem of the Columbia River.  Rock Island Dam, the first, completed in 1933.   Bonneville, the second, in 1938.  Grand Coulee was completed in 1941.  Several others were in the pipeline on the US side, but none in British Columbia. 

The Columbia drains a region the size of France and falls rapidly into the sea, at two feet/mile, giving the river its hydroelectric punch.  Most of the land is on the US side, about 85%.  However, much of the water is stored in the form of snow in the high elevations of British Columbia.  In average water conditions, British Columbia provides 30% of Columbia’s flow.  However, in high water conditions, British Columbia provides nearly half the water in the river.  Water conditions are extremely variable. The natural or “virgin flow” of the Columbia can be as little as 30,000 cubic feet/second, about the average annual flow of the Willamette River, and as much as 1,240,000 cubic feet/second at its highest flow, the one that flooded downtown Portland in 1894.  

Post war, Canada and the US turned their attention to a basic business deal.  Create value upriver by storing and releasing water in Canada to provide flood control and electricity downstream.  The simple idea ran into difficult boundary politics, so a deal had to wait 15 years for attitudes to change enough to allow it.    

In the meantime, the 20,000 or so African Americans who came to Portland during the war soon shrunk to 10,000, about 5,000 now living in Vanport, its population now at 18,000 people.  To accommodate the many veterans living there, Oregon State College created an extension in Vanport that enrolled nearly 2,000 students in its first year, 1946.  Over time, it became today’s Portland State University.  Most of the remaining African American population was now moving into the Albina neighborhood in north Portland.  As they moved in, whites were moving out, including a unique immigrant population of
Trinity Lutheran Church
Volga River Germans who had fled the Russian Steppes in the early 1880s, 1890s and the beginning of the new 20th century. They left their distinctive churches and bungalows.   Still surrounded by the red lines of the Portland Realty Board, 5,000 African Americans were living in Albina at war's end.

There was a heavy snow pack accumulating in 1948 throughout the mountains along the Columbia River and its tributaries.  Once the snow stopped, it remained cool in the watershed, delaying the gradual snow melt managers of the hydroelectric system like to see.   Then a warm spell settled in – 75 degrees on May 15.  The next Thursday it was 78, the following Sunday still 78, then 85 on Monday.  The whole next week was over 70 degrees and Spokane hit 84 in on both Saturday and Sunday.  When it wasn’t hot, there was a warm rain.

The snow pack fell off the mountains as never before.  Over a million cubic feet/second was streaming down the river as the Memorial Day holiday approached.  The engineers employed by the Housing Authority of Portland stepped up their inspections of the dikes surrounding the project, starting round-the-clock patrols on May 25, a day the river rose dramatically.  On the evening of May 29th, the Housing Authority met to discuss options including evacuation.  Early the next morning, about 4 AM on Memorial Day, Housing Authority of Portland workers slipped a note under each door of the remaining residents.  After stating that the engineers had been keeping a constant watch on the dikes, the note concluded:

REMEMBER:

DIKES ARE SAFE AT PRESENT
YOU WILL BE WARNED IF NECESSARY
YOU WILL HAVE TIME TO LEAVE
DON’T GET EXCITED

There were several eyewitnesses to the breaking of the railroad dike, though none had a better view than the five railroad employees who were inspecting the dike when it broke.  That morning, they had noticed parts of the track slumping a bit and ordered trains going over the track to slow down.  A bit later, a housing authority employee noticed very muddy water in the Columbia River Slough on the Vanport side of the dike.

The dike was built over several years beginning in 1918.  It’s purpose was to carry trains, but people thought of it as a flood control structure.  It was owned by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway and looked its role.  It was 75 feet tall and had a much bigger base than other structures protecting Vanport.  Plus, people thought that the years of rail traffic had compacted the fills in the dike.  It had also stood up to major floods in 1921, 1928 and 1933. 

Suddenly, at 4:17 PM, the Columbia River was pouring through the center of the railroad bed, immediately opening a rip in the structure that rapidly grew.  An aircraft piloted by a man named Calvin Hubert saw a 50 foot gash in the structure that was growing by the second.  Felix Baranovich was in Vanport at his record shop and glanced up at the dike in time to see the break and he
began running through the town alerting residents.  He ran past cars careening through the streets crazily to the safety of Denver Avenue, the road atop a dike on the east side of Vanport.  He saw people on top of the railroad dike who didn’t seem particularly concerned, though they soon would be.  Back in the air, Hubert saw the rip in the dike extend to 500 feet in the first minute or so.  The railroad inspectors on the dike were now in the water.

Students and professors from the Vanport Extension were removing their research papers from the school when it happened.  They became the early warning system for residents.

Mostly, people tried to drive out, but the one road out was quickly clogged with others driving to safety.  A monster traffic jam developed when public safety vehicles, good samaritans and gawkers rushed to Denver Avenue just as residents were driving out.  After 15 minutes, the warning sirens began to blow.

It was fortunate that the water rushing through the broken dike encountered the Columbia River Slough on the Vanport side of the dike.  The sloughs and lakes inside the project slowed the water, absorbing its power and slowing its spread. 

The rescue was underway.  As their houses bobbed along in the water, people trapped inside could not find the exits and had to be chopped out by rescuers.  Others clung to roofs, pieces of wood, utility poles, mattresses.  By 9:00 PM, it seemed as if everyone was out and most headed for some kind of temporary shelter.  It seemed preposterous, but no bodies had been found. 

Five players from the Portland Beavers baseball team lived in Vanport.  The hapless Beavers were swept in a double header by Seattle the day of the flood, falling to 19-39 on the season.  Three of them hopped a plane to get home and be with their families, all of whom were safe.  Where they landed is unknown, as Portland’s International Airport was flooded and closed.  The train station was down as well.  One of the old Columbia River sternwheeler tugs was in the middle of the closed Interstate Bridge, pushing against a support beam engineers feared was becoming unstable.

Then the Denver Avenue dike began to give, first a small break, suddenly extending several hundred feet.  A utility worker on the dike was caught in the break and disappeared while seated in his car.  No longer impounded, the
houses began floating away, breaking up as they went, groaning and snapping in the current.  As the debris broke up further, bodies were found in ones, twos and threes.  Lorena Smith was stuck in a pile of debris under water.  Her husband, on top, struggled to get her out and failed.  Sally Butcher, 11 months and her brother, Michael, two years, were found underwater in a crazily tipped house.  Mrs. Florence Beadle, 44, was floating free.  Those were the first deaths reported by the Oregon Journal.  Fifteen dead and seven missing was the final count, though not a lot of people in Vanport that day believed the numbers.  Casualties seemed impossibly low.



In Rachel Dresbeck’s book, Oregon Disasters, she reports many rumors.  A number of people said that they had seen a bus full of kids knocked off the road and sinking in the first minutes of the flood.  Others believed that the kids in the movie theater never got out.  People feared hundreds had been washed out to sea.  Another rumor had it that officials were using the nearby Terminal Ice and Storage as a secret storage place for bodies.  The City Council voted 3-2 to hold the Rose Festival that year, though they had to move it to the eastside of town to avoid the flood damage in the downtown.   


Many people at the time felt that the flood brought out the best in people and was a good moment for the city’s race relations.  Thousands of homeless connected to people who took them in with little regard for their race.  The temporary school shelters set up by the Red Cross were not needed by mid-week.  Some went to tents in the backyards of relatives, others to homes in the wealthy West Hills. An older black woman who had spent the night walking, then sleeping, on the side of Denver Avenue with her three grandchildren went up to a taxi driver and asked for water.  He drove the family to his home, they would stay a month, and returned to Denver Avenue where he offered free rides to people who needed them.  

After the flood, nearly 18,000 people found temporary homes throughout Portland. A second round of temporary homes, this time in the form of small trailers, were controversial, as they were in Katrina, but finally there was something good to wait for -- Portland was building new public housing and putting black people in those houses – and they were in the city limits though the red lines around Albina, largely held firm.

Portland City Club has long been a consistent and honest voice about race in the city.  It has recognized that feeling good about an emergency response wasn't enough.  And, over many years, it pursued race in Portland with a restless energy, not yet getting to what it truly wanted, but always going back to the basic questions. The Club’s first effort was long before the flood, articulating the need to repeal the racist elements of the state constitution in 1926.   In 1945 the Club published its first comprehensive study, The Negro In Portland, outlining the failures of the banking, lending, real estate, education, employment and justice systems that had to be recognized and addressed.  In 1957 it offered a progress report that expressed some optimism but also disappointment at how some areas, particularly housing, were not working for African Americans.  In 1968, Martin Luther King’s assassination led to rioting and the Club studied race and the justice system, in 1980 the schools, in 1991 and 1992 it revisited housing, justice, health and welfare systems.

In its work, City Club has educated generations of young Portland leaders on what it means to think about and try to stir action on the one of the hardest problems facing any community. 

An agreement on joint US and Canadian action on the Columbia River was a direct result of the Vanport flood, though the complexities made for a long wait.  In 1964, Canada and the US signed a final version of the Columbia River Treaty.  The agreement purchased flood control for 60 years by paying for three dams built on the Columbia in British Columbia.  These dams also provided water storage that generated electricity in US dams downstream, the two countries splitting the value.  A group of utilities in the US purchased the Canadian share of electricity for 30 years and with it created the Pacific Northwest - California Electrical Intertie, a piece of infrastructure providing seasonal exchanges between the regions.  We grouse about sometimes, but it has provided tremendous value to the Pacific Northwest.

Flood control, in particular, has been extremely valuable to the region.  Several events approaching the size of the Vanport Flood have been averted because of the three Canadian dams built -- and Canadian citizens lived with.

Where Vanport stood is now a golf course, the Portland International Raceway and various parts of the Columbia River Slough.  Sixty five years after the flood it remains one of the powerful metaphors about race in Portland.  The Portland City Club, about every ten years or so, struggles against one or another of its complexities.

Agencies in Canada and the United States are negotiating today some kind of extension of the existing treaty, most of its provisions expiring in 2024.  The flood control provisions of the treaty will be different.  We don't know yet what the new flood control regime will be.

Portland City Club: The Negro in Portland, 1945

Portland City Club, The Negro in Portland, 1945-1957

American Sociological Review: Elements of Tenant Instability in a War Housing Project

History of Portland's African American Community, 1805-Present

US District Judge James Alger Fee's decision federal responsibility for Vanport damages

Bob Royer remarks on Columbia River Treaty, Northwest & Intermountain Power Producer's Conference

Columbia River Treaty Articles, Historylink.org

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