Flood of 1948

Vanport Flood

Felix Baranovich who is the only Vancouverite known to have been an eyewitness to the Vanport dike break, still said it seemed like a nightmare in which he found himself running through the streets and shouting the alarm. He resided on the Evergreen highway at Vancouver Rt. 1, Box 177-A.

Baranovich was working Sunday afternoon at his Vanport record shop located at the west end of Lake street at the end of the project nearest the dike. Because the government authorities had said that an orderly evacuation over a 24-hour period might eventuate, it was natural that all eyes turned occasionally toward the embankment.

That was how Baranovich happened to look out the window from a distance of about a quarter of a mile and saw water spilling over the top like a waterfall. “For the time — possibly a minute — that I watched, this looked like a sheet of water — almost like a mirage. I could see about a half dozen men in the vicinity of the break, though at that distance they didn’t seem to be particularly excited at the water coming over the top.”

A huge portion of the dike fell at once — a section which Baranovich estimated to be 200 feet long and ten feet high.

He started running through the streets then, shouting as loud as he could. People were running everywhere and screaming. The siren did not sound a warning for a long time — probably 15 to 20 minutes after the break.

Baranovich said “After the alarm had become general and I was exhausted from running I went back to my shop to try to get out part of the stock in the truck. Soon my assistant and I realized that this was worse than we’d believed. Life, not property, was the question. It was nearly a mile to the only exit onto Denver Avenue through maelstrom of panicked humanity. Some clutched a few possessions some children, and some a dog or car.

“I saw several fear-crazed people hurt by the cars. We helped those that we could onto our truck which was never more than 50 or 100 feet ahead of the oncoming muddy wave that splashed 20 or 30 feet as it hit and crumpled the buildings. I saw dozens of people overtaken and thrown down by the wave … no one could know how many came up.”

“One of the women that climbed onto our truck was a telephone operator who said that orders from the housing authority were to spread the word quietly to avoid alarm.”

“After taking my load to the Kenton dike I returned to what had been Vanport 20 or 20 minutes before and was completely unprepared for the sight of a lake which I realized must be 15 feet deep because only the roof tops showed.”

On May 31, 1948 the newspaper wrote:

Overshadowed by the grim Vanport City disaster, flood emergencies were being battled all along Clark County’s waterfront today as the Columbia River continued relentlessly to rise toward a crest of 31 feet. These were the developments:

1. Vancouver is cut off from train service, and mail service has been interrupted.

2. Water was some 18 inches deep at Second and Washington streets this morning but the street was being kept open by sandbags and pumps.

3. The Interstate bridge was closed to all but emergency traffic. (What constituted an ’emergency’ was not defined clearly.)

4. Industrial plants were shut down with the exception of Alcoa, idling some 3,000 workers.

5. A total of 107 Vanport refugees are housed in Vancouver Barracks. Thirteen were treated at local hospitals for various injuries.

6. Some 500 men, working with the aid of trucks, bulldozers and power shovels, worked feverishly to strengthen the dike at Woodland, but the dike gave way just before noon, according to an unverified report.

7. More than 200 families have been evacuated from Fruit Valley Homes as flood waters inundated the area and sewer service was cut off.

8. No trouble is anticipated in sewer service in the remainder of Vancouver, according to City Engineer Marvin Ray.

9. An estimated 200 families have been evacuated in the Camas-Washougal area.

10. The Red Cross headquarters in Vancouver was a beehive of activity as emergency services are being extended.

11. The crest of the flood was expected to reach Vancouver by late Tuesday afternoon, and Forecaster Elmer Fisher predicted it would be 31 feet. After that, Fisher forecast that the water would begin to fall slowly, and is expected to reach 29.5 feet by Friday.

Vancouver was virtually cut off from all avenues except the air today as rail lines in all directions were either severed or in an unsafe condition. Trains from Seattle were coming south only as far as Kelso. The tracks were under water near Kalama. Water had softened the roadbed about 100 miles east of Vancouver so that it was unsafe.

James Condra, joint railway agent here for the railroads, said it was impossible to tell today when train service might be restored. Mail service meantime, was disrupted, and C.M. Galbraith, assistant postmaster here, said no plans had been made this morning for its restoration. It was thought possible, however, that the mail trucks might be allowed to use the Interstate bridge.

At Woodland some 500 national guardsmen and other workmen attempted vainly to save the dike. Brig. Gen. E.M. Llewellyn, adjutant general for the national guard, said two bulldozers had been lost in soft places in the dike, before it broke.

National guard units from Vancouver were bolstered by units from Aberdeen, Centralia and Olympia as the battle against the flood continued, and an estimated 100 trucks were on hand.

Many residents of Woodland have already been evacuated, Gen. Llewellyn stated, and the remainder can be evacuated within 10 minutes, he said.

Amphibious vehicles were on hand to evacuate workmen on the dike in the event it should give way and leave them stranded.

State patrolmen were working 16-hour shifts as weary officers continued to handle traffic and aid flood victims. Vancouver police were working on regular shifts aided by auxiliary police working on five-hour shifts. About a dozen auxiliary officers were on each shift.

Evergreen flying field was doing a rushing business as persons wishing to cross the river took to the air. Numerous planes were operating shuttle service across the swollen stream.

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