It came and it conquered

Willamette Falls is a ripple under the high flows on Christmas Day, 1964. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Willamette Falls is a ripple under the high flows on Christmas Day, 1964. (Corps of Engineers photo)


By Amy Echols, Public Affairs Office

The Oregonian covers the disaster on December 23, days ahead of the highest floodwaters.

The Oregonian covers the disaster on December 23, days ahead of the highest floodwaters.

The early weeks of winter in 1964 delivered a massive punch to the Pacific Northwest. Floods struck hardest in Oregon’s Willamette, lower Columbia, Rogue, Umpqua and Coquille river basins and took 18 lives in Oregon alone. The region incurred great damage and took years to recover.

The lift span on Portland's Steel Bridge remains open to allow logs and debris to pass, taking pressure of the structure on Christmas Day, 1964

The lift span on Portland’s Steel Bridge remains open to allow logs and debris to pass, taking pressure off the structure on Christmas Day, 1964

On the ground, Portland District Engineer Col. William Talbott directed the activation of control and disaster operations and mobilized emergency flood fight and rescue operations. He assigned 14 engineers to temporary emergency field offices in Salem, Albany, Corvallis and Eugene. The District deployed 212 employees in the days leading up to Christmas 1964 to assist in inspection, construction, control and maintenance of permanent and temporary flood control projects. District staff in Portland coordinated with local authorities on the flood fight on the Sandy, Clackamas and lower Willamette rivers.

The USS Bennington, an aircraft carrier that furnished helicopters to Eureka, California during the flood, used the radio facilities at the U. S. Government Moorings for relay of radio messages. – Corps’ 1966 post-flood Report

High water conceals Willamette Falls

The Willamette River, reaching record levels, almost completely submerged Willamette Falls at Oregon City. Articles, books and photographs record the huge business and residential losses along the lower Willamette. The flood weakened and damaged wharf and dock facilities and debris made ship movement in Portland’s harbor dangerous.

Lower Columbia gets upstream relief

Reservoir storage upriver on the Columbia and its tributaries – from projects in the Willamette basin, to Grand Coulee Dam in eastern Washington and others as far away as Idaho – kept this flood from becoming the second largest on record for the lower Columbia River. Additionally, 42 levee projects protected much of the floodplain and flood fight teams used an estimated 31,534 Corps’ sandbags to provide some relief to the area.

High water overtakes the Upper Willamette

While the Eugene area greatly benefitted from the storage of water in existing Corps reservoirs, flows exceeded flood stage on every tributary to the Willamette River: the mainstem Willamette was as high as 8 feet above flood stage. At Eugene, Albany and Salem, high waters remained above bankfull stage for many days. Water up to 9 feet deep flooded 300 houses in the north section of Salem and destroyed Salem’s municipal sewage plant.

The Corps’ Willamette Valley Project Office received Weather Bureau forecasts from Portland and relayed them to local communities. With no comprehensive levee system in place, the problem was one of warning and evacuating people from threatened areas, as well as providing shelter and food for evacuees. Portland District personnel helped with both tasks.

Flooding destroyed two cofferdams and a bridge trestle at the construction site of the Corps’ Green Peter Dam, now the largest in the Willamette system. Water filled the powerhouse draft tube with rock and debris, ruining the pumping plant.

Raging water in the Rogue River Basin moved houses downstream of their foundations. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Raging water in the Rogue River Basin moved houses downstream of their foundations. (Corps of Engineers photo)

Rogue River Basin goes it alone

The Rogue basin in southern Oregon, without any flood storage reservoirs upstream of Grants Pass, felt the uncontrolled fury of the flood. Assembling complete flow records became impossible because some of the measuring gages were simply washed away. Along one stretch of the Rogue River, surging water destroyed or heavily damaged 250 homes and 30 commercial establishments. It destroyed or greatly damaged every bridge across the river. Gold Beach, at the mouth of the Rogue, lost residential, commercial and marine facilities. Total losses in the basin exceeded $25 million in 1965 values.

But it could have been much worse

Without the existing storage in the Willamette Basin and to a lesser extent the Columbia River, Portland would have experienced a disaster of historic proportions. – Corps’ 1966 post-flood Report

The system-wide operation of the Corps’ seven completed flood storage projects in the upper Willamette Basin during the 1964 flood remains unprecedented today. They reduced river stages in Eugene by 14.8 feet; at Salem by 7.5 feet; at Oregon City by three feet; and by 4.5 feet at Portland. These reductions prevented extensive damage to residential and mill properties in the Eugene-Springfield area, the thorough inundation of downtown Salem and minimized the destruction of low-lying industrial developments in Oregon City. In 1965 dollars, the operations prevented an estimated $540 million in damages; that equals almost $3.9 billion in 2014 dollars. It’s impossible to know precisely how many lives Corps’ operations spared.

For more, visit the Corps’ Christmas Flood of 1964 website.

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