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Vanport survivors reflect 63 years later

Oregon's 2nd largest city, Vanport, was destroyed in 40 minutes on Memorial Day 63 years ago.

PORTLAND -- The Columbia river has been at or near flood stage for more than a week, higher than it has been in decades for this time of year.

However, in 1948 it was 15 feet higher, following a sudden hot spell that melted a massive snow pack that year.

My friends and I walked over early that morning and the river was really, really high, I believe evacuations should have happened the day before, said Regina Flowers. She was 13 years old and living in Vanport with her family when the dike broke.

My brother came running home, screaming that the dike had broke, said Flowers. My Mom threw some clothes and pictures in suitcases and we ran to higher ground, I looked back and saw the rushing waters.

The river took nearly everything in Vanport. About 20,000 people lived in Vanport at the time of the flood. More than 40,000 people called Vanport home when shipyards along the Columbia were building liberty ships during World War II.

Homes, schools and entire recreation centers floated down river, even KGW's radio station tower was destroyed in the flood. The official government death toll was 15, but survivors believe it was much higher.

I saw people on rooftops, Flowers said.

In an instant 20,000 homeless people flocked to Portland, overwhelming government agencies.

Just like after Hurricane Katrina, the government provided trailers. Some families relocated to other states, but many stayed in the area.

They moved all over the city, Southeast, Southwest, North Portland, you would be surprised where they ended up, said Flowers.

Vanport survivors helped shape the region. Flowers said when the river runs high like it is this Memorial Day weekend, it brings anxiety and some bittersweet memories about an entire city taken away by the mighty Columbia River.

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