Resource center reveals the wonders, woes of water

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Special events this year

 Vanport Flood exhibit opening, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 9.

 Birthday celebration, 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 13.

 “Volcano views and brews,” lecture about the Missoula Floods by geologist Scott Burns, adult refreshments available, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 16.

 “Splash Back 20” foodie festival, details to be announced.

 Sturgeon Festival, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sept. 17.

 American Indian Heritage Month observance, Nov. 12.


 Schedule: Doors open at 11 a.m. Jan. 9. Introductory remarks by Mayor Tim Leavitt at 11:45 a.m. Historians Milo Reed of Vanport Mosaic and James Harrison of Portland Community College at noon. Followed by video presentations of Vanport survivor stories.

 Exhibit also features panels on loan from Oregon Black Pioneers and Clark County Historical Museum.

 Special invitation to Clark County Vanport survivors to come share their stories.

 Exhibit continues through June.

Did You Know?

 In February 1996, the Columbia River rose to within feet of the brand new Water Center just days before its official opening.

Water Resources Education Center

 Where: 4600 S.E. Columbia Way.

 Regular hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.

 Admission: Free.

 Phone: 360-487-7111.

 On the Web:

We’re all wet. We mostly like it that way.

Because we’re near the left coast, we get endless baths of moist, warmish air from the Pacific Ocean. (“Marine west coast” is the name of our soggy climate zone.) We’ve got one of North America’s major rivers coursing right past our doorstep. And we’ve got big mountains that send snowmelt cascading every which way — at least during normal, non-drought years like this one is shaping up to be. (Here’s hoping many more of those are left for us.)

All of which makes the Pacific Northwest about as green and growing as any region on Earth. Visitors are stunned at the scale of the trees, the dripping moss, the flowers that get fooled into sprouting in midwinter. Newcomers with green thumbs discover how quickly modest garden projects can turn into monsters.

Contrary to what you might assume, though, Vancouver draws its excellent drinking water not from the Columbia River but an underground aquifer, which it is keen to preserve and protect. That’s why, when city leaders of two decades ago wanted to expand an existing riverside sewage treatment plant, they built public support by including, in the $40 million bond package, $3.5 million for a 16,000-square-foot educational facility — classrooms, science exhibits, a rentable main hall — focused on the wonders of water. Adding 50 acres of parks, trails, gardens and wetlands preservation to the site helped, too.

“It was a very dynamic time, a visionary time,” recalled Loretta Callahan, who watched it all happen as a reporter for The Columbian, and who is now the city’s public works spokesperson. “It’s probably not the kind of thing we’ll see again.”

The facility hosts thousands of students, teachers and other visitors every year. And cities such as Boise, Olympia, Seattle and Houston consulted with Vancouver before following its lead and building similar water-education facilities in conjunction with water-treatment plants.

To celebrate Vancouver’s watery vision in this, the Water Resources Education Center’s 20th year, several special events are scheduled — starting on Jan. 9 with an exploration of one catastrophic time when all that water was too much of a good thing.

Vanished Vanport

There’s a good reason why Bill Hughes lives near the top of a steep bluff in the Minnehaha neighborhood: He knows what it’s like barely to escape the horror of an inexorably rising flood. You never forget something like that, he said.

Also, he’s quick to add, you never forget when the authorities lie to you about matters of life and death. Fliers slipped under the doors of thousands of homes in Vanport, Ore.– directly across the river from Vancouver — just before Memorial Day 1948 promised that dikes would hold and there was nothing to fear. Too many people believed them, Hughes said. (“In those days, it didn’t occur to any of us to call a lawyer,” he added.)

But Hughes, then a 21-year-old college student at the Vanport Extension Center, decided to act. He helped a grandmother and her brood out of their home and drove them east to Rocky Butte, a Portland hilltop. Then he rented a trailer so he could evacuate his own family, drove home and took a breather to eat dinner.

The pause lasted about a minute. “The water’s coming, the water’s coming!” somebody outside screamed.

“It was more than water,” Hughes wrote in a remembrance. “It was trees, buildings, cars and logs. When water moves, it really moves.” He and his folks had “a precious few minutes to grab what we could and throw it on the trailer. Talk about adrenalin, I was able to pick up my bookcase of college books with one hand and my record player and records with the other.” The rented trailer promptly joined another flood — the traffic of nearly 20,000 panicked people, headed for higher ground.

The 10-foot wall of water wiped out what had been Oregon’s second largest city. Given those official notices to stay calm and stay put, it’s astonishing that there were just 15 fatalities.

Hughes and his family made it back to Rocky Butte. College exams had been scheduled for the following week, but the Vanport Extension Center was no more. (One teacher had advised students to bring “those newfangled pens that write underwater.”) Eventually the college relocated to southwest Portland and became Portland State University. Hughes said he’s proud of his quick actions and the emblazoned beer mug he still has that reads “The U by the Slough.”

But his memories of panic and chaos, he said, “I’d just as soon forget.”