On May 30, 1948, the Columbia River completely destroyed the city of Vanport, just west of East Columbia. In one afternoon, the Vanport Flood left more than 18,000 people homeless and killed at least 15.
Through the Lost City, Living Memories project, part of this year’s Vanport Mosaic Festival, 30 flood survivors have told their stories on camera.
Clearly many were kids then. Laura Howard remembers leaving behind a chocolate cake untasted when her family fled with minutes to spare. Jackie Winter, now an Oregon legislator, lost her first bicycle.
Older survivors have more terrifying memories. At 16, Bea Gilmore was in the movie theater when she heard a shout, “The levee broke. Run!”—and seconds later the warning siren, “the loudest noise I’ve ever heard.” Run she did, and her family made it up the hill. Behind thousands of running people, Bea saw the wall of water closing in on them.
Jan Zimmer remembers a different kind of terror. “There was no TV then to warn us, no social media. We just saw this huge mass of people surging up Denver Avenue, coming right at us. Then we saw the water.” Jan’s home was uphill enough to be safe, and her family sheltered several survivors. Now she lives on East Columbia’s Levee Road. The water didn’t care where Vanport ended and another area began, and it flooded Levee Road. “When we remodeled the house, we uncovered the high watermark. I could barely reach high enough to touch it.”