A mountainside gave way in a rush of mud, closing Interstate 84 through the Columbia Gorge. Highways vanished beneath stinking, caramel-colored floodwaters swirling with uprooted trees and raw sewage. Three people died, two were missing, and thousands of Oregonians were evacuated.
And the rain kept falling. As the state’s worst flooding in more than three decades threatened to swamp downtown Portland, sandbags and concrete highway dividers formed a thin defense Thursday against the wide Willamette River.
“Water’s going everywhere,” said Trase Myers, as he and others hurried to stack 40-pound sandbags against a building downtown. “I can’t believe the destruction the water has caused.”
In the nation’s latest extreme weather in a winter of extremes, hundreds of roads were closed by high water or mudslides. Amtrak trains were halted. Gov. John Kitzhaber declared 18 counties disaster areas.
Kitzhaber was hospitalized with chest pains Thursday night after asking President Clinton for a disaster declaration that would make low-interest loans and grants available to victims.
A mudslide knocked a seven-unit condominium off its foundation in Portland’s posh West Hills, but there were no major injuries. The building had been evacuated Tuesday after a minor slide.
Amid the deluge, muddy floodwaters contaminated drinking-water supplies throughout the valley. Portland officials urged people to conserve, while Salem officials said the city faced a crisis after the water treatment plant was knocked out of commission and water consumption rose 16 percent. Smaller towns shut down their water plants completely and told residents to buy bottled water.
On Monday, a warm storm stalled over the state, and the snow started melting, adding to the record rains - more than 5 inches a day in some areas. As swollen streams converged in the Willamette River Valley, evergreen trees were ripped out by their roots, bobbing and lunging downstream like huge battering rams.
At least 15,000 Oregonians were forced from their homes, including 12,000 in the Salem area, where parts of downtown were under water.
In Portland, the Willamette was expected to breach the city’s seawall Thursday night and crest this morning at 30 feet, 1.2 feet above the seawall’s lowest point. That would equal the level of Portland’s last big flood, at Christmas 1964, which killed 47 people and left 17,000 people homeless throughout the Northwest.