The Great Flood of '96
(Oregon Planners' Journal, March/April 1996).
By Richard H. Carson
Planners rarely think of themselves as being directly responsible for human life or property when natural disasters strike. After all, what can planners do when a major flood occurs? The answer is, "A great deal."
We may never forget the winter of 1996. It started with hurricane force winds, followed by snow, freezing rain, a deluge, and then came the flood. It was, "Just one damn thing after another!", as Churchill described history. The Great Flood of '96 began with flood crest forecasts coming in from the National Weather Service. Employees of city, county and state government were stunned by what they were being told. The last major flood occurred in 1964. (I don't know about you, but in 1964 I was a junior in high school. While that doesn't make me as old as the hills, I think I can safely say that most of you are younger than I. So none of us had any experience in a flood disaster). The truth was all of the city and county government were caught by surprise.
Oregon City responded by setting up an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Our planners immediately translated flood forecast data to GIS [geographic information system] maps to outline the edge of the flood's theoretical peak. In the first few hours flood crest projections for Oregon City kept rising. First, it was to crest at 37 feet above sea level, then 40 feet and then 45 feet. The City's Community Development Department plotted the 46 foot contour level on our maps to be safe. The EOC used this data to identify property owners who would be impacted by the flood water and then sent city police and fire department personnel door-to-door with one message: Evacuate! That's a pretty heavy message. I remember the sense of responsibility I felt for having to ask citizens to evacuate their homes and businesses. What if we were wrong? Again, we mapped 46 feet to be safe. The flood would eventually peak at 47.5 feet.
It is worth noting that the Community Development Department was not written into the City's emergency plan. Conventional wisdom was that we had little to offer in the way of emergency management. However, we took the initiative and made a role for ourselves. The Flood of '96 demonstrated that some cities were more prepared for the flood than others. Oregon City proved that it was ready, and planners played an important role in responding to the flood.
The unexpected activism and help from our planners led to new assignments. The department setup a Hood Assistance Helpline. We literally wrote a new page in the emergency plan by diverting non-emergency calls away from the EOC. These were calls from either people wanting to volunteer or those needing help. Within 24 hours we mobilized 150-200 volunteers. For seven days these people filled and emptied sand bags, and assisted in the clean-up effort. As the flood receded, I was designated the city's Recovery Manager and my department turned its attention to working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess damaged property and infrastructure.
I remember sitting in Waterfront Park listening to President Clinton thank those who fought against the flood. I sat in a folding chair with the sun on my face. The sky was blue. It was a pleasant experience, especially after seven days of coffee, cheeseburgers and sitting in a room with a dozen cell phones constantly ringing. I remember closing my eyes and thinking of Shakespeare's Saint Crispin's Day speech:
"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
I opened my eyes, and looks at the department's Citizen Involvement Coordinator, smiled and thought, "and sisters."
Richard Carson is the managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.