Breaking News
More () »

75 years later, survivors reflect on deadly Vanport flood

At least 15 people were killed and 18,000 others lost their homes in the disaster that hit what is now North Portland.

PORTLAND, Oregon — This month marks 75 years since the deadly Vanport flood in what is now North Portland. Once Oregon's second largest city, Vanport was a diverse community in a time when many of its residents had few other housing options. 

On Memorial Day, 1948, a railroad dike failed. It pushed the Columbia River into Vanport, wiping out the entire community. At least 15 people were killed and 18,000 others lost their homes.

“Vanport is something I think we have to never forget,” said 81-year-old Janice Okamoto.

She was 6-years-old when her family fled Vanport. 

“I didn't know we were poor but we couldn't afford housing any place else but government housing,” she said.

Okamoto, along with other Vanport flood survivors and their descendants, gathered at Portland State University on Thursday for The Spirit of Vanport: Celebrating the City of Vanport and Vanport College. It marked the start of the 8th Vanport Mosaic Festival, which runs through May 29. 

At the time it was destroyed, Vanport was the nation's largest housing project that was designed as temporary, wartime housing. Seventy-two thousand people moved to Portland from around the country to work in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. There weren't enough homes to house everyone, so the government built Vanport. At its peak, 42,000 workers and their families lived there. After the war, about 20,000 remained. Many couldn't afford or simply weren't allowed to live in parts of Portland because they were Black; a form of discrimination known as redlining. In Vanport, they found a home and each other.

“Vanport is a classic example of people working together for a common cause,” said 81-year-old O.B. Hill.

He was six years old when the flood destroyed his home. Hill remembers the day well.

“We had wanted to go to the movie and our mother would not allow us to go,” Hill said. “And we were outside playing and a policeman came by and advised us that the dike had broken so we ran upstairs and told other mother.”

Hill’s daughter is grateful for the stories and lessons her father has passed down.

“It's very important for people to know the history of what happened,” said Angelah Hill. “Just the fact that historically we have been moved around and pocketed.”

Laura Lo Forti directs the Vanport Mosaic Festival and is pleased to see people learning a part of history that’s lost on so many.

“We feel like stories, uncomfortable and complex stories like the Vanport stories, are intentionally forgotten,” Lo Forti said. “You need to look into the past. We call this memory activism, which is really the act of remembering as an act of resistance.”

Before You Leave, Check This Out