Oregon flood concerns rise as memory of 1996 disaster lurks
If you lived in northwest Oregon in 1996, this week's weather and the forecast of what's to come may feel ominously familiar.
In late January of 1996, just like last week, heavy snowfall blanketed the region. Then a week-long cold snap set in, just like it did over the past few days.
In the first week of February 1996, an atmospheric river of moisture took aim at the state, bringing with it warm temperatures that melted the snow, and catastrophic flooding quickly followed suit.
On Saturday, the National Weather Service said a similar atmospheric river -- the meteorological term for a warm, moisture-rich storm system -- was headed our way so it appeared that all the pieces were in place for a repeat.
"With the heavy snowfall we got last week, added to the heavy rain we're expecting, the potential for impactful flooding is high," Will Ahue, a meteorologist with the weather service, said Saturday.
Unlike 1996, however, the region's largest rivers -- the Willamette and the Columbia -- aren't predicted to surpass flood stage and, weather being as unpredictable as it is, no one is sure yet exactly where the jet stream will make landfall and exactly how much rain it will drop.
When the rains came in early February of 1996, they were carried on a warm jet stream from the tropics. That warm air sent snow levels soaring and accelerated snowmelt in the mountains. The mix of rain and snowmelt inundated nearly every body of water in the region and sent rivers to flood stage and beyond in a matter of hours.
Eighteen of Oregon's 36 counties were declared disaster areas as Corvallis, Oregon City, Portland and other communities along the Willamette River were overwhelmed with water at levels not seen since the Christmas Floods of 1964.
At least eight people were killed, including an 8-year-old girl who drowned when she slipped into a culvert on her way to collect mail at her home in Scio. Another 21,000 were evacuated.
In Oregon City, the river flowed at such a torrent that Willamette Falls all but disappeared in the deluge. Water lapped at the sidewalks of RiverPlace in Southwest Portland and came within inches of cresting the harbor wall in downtown.
Some 40,000 sandbags and 600 plywood boards were deployed along the river in what came to be known as "Vera's Wall" after then-mayor Vera Katz.
The flooding was severe enough that President Bill Clinton visited Portland in the aftermath and commended the efforts of its citizens in helping fend off the flood from downtown.
"If you look at this wall behind us, it seems to me that it is a symbol of what our country does when everybody pulls together and works together and forgets about their differences and focuses their attention and their hearts and their minds," he said.