Biking the Columbia River Levee, Hurricane Katrina, and the Vanport Flood

Columbia River Levee

My Monday bike ride includes ten miles along the Columbia River Levee. For part of the distance the wide, paved bike trail runs between the levee and the riprap-protected riverbank. Other sections of the trail take cyclists, runners, walkers, and skaters on top of the dike. At other places, the trail is on the town side, with cyclists using the shoulder of Marine Drive, a heavily traveled industrial arterial.

The river is broad; Mt Hood dominates the eastern horizon, and much of the trail is a tranquil route where cyclists can ride as fast or as leisurely as they desire.

An article by Steve Law in this week’s Portland Tribune has reminded me of the fragility of things that seem to be built for the ages. One of the vivid memories of my adolescent years was a Friday afternoon in mid May 1948. I was running the mile on the track at Jefferson High School and, in fact, ran my best mile ever: 5:05, which even then was only a mediocre time.

What I remember even more, however, was the strange weather. Day after day, we enjoyed bright blue skies and warmth that ordinarily didn’t come for another six weeks. Despite the fact that there had been little rain the entire spring, the Columbia River kept rising, fed by unseasonal snow melt because of constant high temperatures in the Cascade Mountains.

People were getting worried, especially the 18,000 still living in Vanport City, Henry Kaiser’s experiment in wartime housing. It had been built on a flood plain protected by a railroad embankment rather than a proper levee, but the engineers told everyone “not to worry. It’s safe, but if the danger level increases, we’ll give you plenty of warning.”

At 4:05 on May 30 (Memorial Day), water broke through a 200-foot section of the embankment. By nightfall, Vanport was under water. Miraculously, it seemed, only fifteen people lost their lives.

Steve Law’s feature story notes that the 18.5-mile Columbia River levee and related structures protect $20 billion worth of property, including the Portland International Airport, which is one of the scenic attractions on the city side of the bike trail.

The point of Law’s story, however, is to call attention to “so-called levee encroachments which include Marine Drive, hundreds of privately owned condos and other buildings, 4,000 trees, BPA [Bonneville Power Administration] transmission towers and miles of utility lines.”

The chief problem of these improvements is that they penetrate the surface levels and create channels into the sand that constitutes most of the levee’s bulk. Water follows these channels and inevitably leads to erosion.

Most of the knowledgeable people, including officials at the airport, speak reassuringly about the safety of the protective system.

So did the knowledgeable people in 1948 and during the Katrina disaster. Law is certainly correct when he notes that the Portland levee is built on a much more solid natural foundation than the one in New Orleans.

Since Katrina, however, the Corps of Engineers has revised standards for flood-control systems. “But only 121 out of 1,451 U.S. flood-control systems have earned ‘acceptable’ ratings so far in the first national inventory—ordered after Hurricane Katrina—and the Columbia River levee isn’t among them.” Steve Law indicates that so far 1,004 of the systems have earned “minimally acceptable” ratings. Although he doesn’t report on the Columbia River system, it can be presumed that it would be included in this second category.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has, however, identified eight trouble spots, which Steve Law reports. The cost of bringing this system into the acceptable range “is unknown, but it figures to be in the tens of millions of dollars.”

Of course, I will continue to cycle on the levee system. Despite a rainy winter, the Columbia as it runs through this part of the region is far from flood stage.

The repair of this system, however, has now been added to my list of decaying infrastructure features that governmental agencies need to address. If only our leaders, local and national, had the imagination to plan for renewing roads, bridges, and levees! And the courage to gather funds and start the work.

We all would be much safer, and a lot of people could go back to work.


One Response to Biking the Columbia River Levee, Hurricane Katrina, and the Vanport Flood

  1. Reblogged this on Keith Watkins Historian and commented:

    In February 2013, I posted a blog about the precarious condition of the levee along the south bank of the Columbia River, using a photo I had taken on one of my bike rides along the bike trail. With my permission, a Portland newsweekly, Willamette Week, has used that photo with an online article about the difficulties that are likely to be encountered in finding funds to repair the levee. I am reposting my blog from last year.

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