Remembering Vanport Flood’s double tragedy

News Release: May 23, 2018

4:05 p.m. Memorial Day: A moment of silence to remember the double tragedy of the Vanport Flood

Canadians, impacted by resulting Treaty, ask Americans to rethink flood risk management in the lower Columbia River Basin

Canadian-United States Treaty Negotiations to start May 29 – the day following Vanport Flood memorial

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Without warning, on Memorial Day 1948, a combination of heavy winter snowfall, warm temperatures, and spring rainfall sent torrents down the Columbia River, breaking through a railroad embankment serving as a levee, and destroying Oregon’s second largest city, Vanport, near Portland. Built in the floodplain of the Columbia River close to the confluence with the Willamette River, Vanport provided housing for thousands of low-income people. The floodwaters killed at least fifteen people, left 18,000 others homeless, and washed away the community.

The governments of the United States and Canada seized on the Vanport flood to promote a treaty that would authorize dams upstream in British Columbia and Montana, eventually forcing thousands of residents from their homes, and permanently flooding vast river valleys of the Upper Columbia River Basin. Particularly devastating for indigenous people who had lived in the Columbia River Valley for thousands of years was loss of burial grounds and cultural sites, compounding the loss of massive salmon runs caused by Grand Coulee dam. And now, on the 70th anniversary of the Vanport Flood, the United States and Canada are entering into negotiations to modernize that agreement known as the Columbia River Treaty.

“Recognizing the double tragedy impacting thousands of people in Vanport and subsequently in our Canadian and First Nations communities in the Upper Columbia River, we ask for a moment of silence on Memorial Day,” said Mindy Smith, a physician living near Trail, British Columbia. “We also ask that each Memorial Day going forward, we pause to remember and reflect on this double disaster and how people of the Basin are bound together by more than a treaty, but by our need and responsibility to seek equity of benefits and costs in river management.”

The Vanport Flood and its devastating consequences for the upper Columbia River Basin was the focus of a 2016 conference, One River – Ethics Matter, hosted by the University of Portland. This was part of the conference series of Columbia River reconciliation based on the 2001 Columbia River Pastoral Letter by the Roman Catholic Bishops of the international watershed. Highlights of the Portland conference focusing on the Vanport Flood can be viewed on a short film: Portland: One River – Ethics Matter.

“As negotiators for the United States and Canada prepare to sit down to discuss the future of the River, the double tragedy of the Vanport Flood needs to be remembered,” said Martin Carver of Nelson B.C. and coordinator of the Upper Columbia Basin Environmental Collaborative. “With continued floodplain development in the Portland area and elsewhere, and with escalating risks from climate change, the scope of the floodplain problem going forward will only increase.   Americans should not continue to rely on the devastation of upstream ecosystems and communities to allow for downstream floodplain development in Portland. That is fundamentally unjust and cannot be sustained.”

“The Columbia River is one river and ethics matter,” said John Osborn, physician and coordinator of the Columbia River Roundtable. “Past decisions have located people and structures in harm’s way by building in downriver floodplains while permanently flooding upriver valleys with dams and reservoirs – once biologically and culturally rich river valleys now wastelands. The Treaty dams are not going away. But we need to rethink dam management to improve river health and restore salmon runs while protecting communities. That is a compelling legacy of the Vanport Flood double tragedy.”

The moment of silence is scheduled for 4:05p.m. PDT on Memorial Day (U.S.)   The next day, May 29, in Washington D.C., the United States and Canada will begin formal negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty. (link)

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Vanport, Oregon – photo from BlackPast.org