Strewn with broken boat docks, logs and even a refrigerator, the bloated Willamette River mounted one final surge Friday, flooding homes and businesses south of Portland but sparing the downtown.
The sun broke through after four days of rain that combined with melting snow to swamp highways, unleash mudslides and force tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.
The forecast was for cool, dry weather.
“I’d say we’re over it now,” Fire Chief Bob Wall said as he inspected a makeshift, mile-long barrier atop the seawall in Portland. “I’d call it a success.”
But one river bucked the trend, overwhelming parts of two affluent suburbs south of Portland late Friday.
President Clinton declared disasters in waterlogged Oregon and Washington counties, providing federal assistance to flood victims. Investigators from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected today in Salem, the Oregon capital.
Three people died and two were missing.
Though the Willamette churned through Portland at its highest level in 32 years, Oregon’s largest city was spared the worst when the Army Corps of Engineers temporarily reined in the flow thundering through Bonneville Dam, 30 miles up the Columbia River. That made room for the surging water of the Willamette, which runs north through Portland into the Columbia.
Still, flooding along the Columbia halted shipping in and out of the Port of Portland, the nation’s largest grain-exporting port and the West Coast’s second busiest. Portions of all five terminals at the port were under water.
The city’s water supply was running dangerously low, and city officials said orders to boil all drinking water would be issued by Sunday unless consumption is reduced by 30 percent to 50 percent. Salem water users also were asked to conserve.
“People are not conserving,” said Frank Mauldin, Salem public works director. Many other towns were reporting water shortages, and four were without water altogether because treatment plants had flooded.
To the south, as Willamette Valley residents waited anxiously through the morning, the river crested at one town after another - at Corvallis 3-1/2 feet above flood stage, Oregon City 18 feet above, Portland 10.5 feet above.
In downtown Portland, the Willamette crested at 28.5 feet, just inches below the sea wall. It never reached the barrier of plywood and plastic sheets erected atop the wall by hundreds of volunteers Thursday.
The midway of the Oaks Amusement Park, a popular summer haunt of Portlanders for decades, was hip-deep in cold Willamette water. The bottom of the Ferris wheel was submerged, and park workers cut loose the floor of the huge indoor roller rink to float free and reduce warping.
Just south of Portland, in the affluent suburb of Lake Oswego, floodwaters from the Tualatin River flanked a small dam and rushed into the manmade lake in the center of town, pushing it over its banks and spilling into the Willamette. Dozens of homes were flooded, some to their rooftops.
Nearby, about 18 square blocks of downtown Tualatin were under as much as 2 feet of water.
“It’s one of those situations where Mother Nature has the upper hand,” Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden said.
Just to the east, in Clackamas County, about 2,000 people were evacuated.
On the northern outskirts of Oregon City, 2 to 3 feet of water covered the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and the A-frame that houses the Chamber of Commerce was tilted up on one submerged corner.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before and I have been in Oregon for 25 years,” said Meagan Pavlicek. “Last night, the water had not reached the McDonald’s parking lot. Now McDonald’s looks like it’s in the middle of a lake.”
In the Salem suburb of Keizer, all but about 2,000 of the 12,000 people evacuated from their homes Thursday were allowed to return Friday afternoon.
“We had a 100-year flood and we came out pretty much unscathed,” Mayor Dennis Koho said.
At least 1,000 dairy cows drowned in Tillamook County on the Oregon coast, said Jim McMullen of the Tillamook County Creamer Association. He said he knew of at least two farmers who lost entire herds.
Flooding near the isolated hamlets of Jewell and Elsie in Oregon’s extreme northwestern corner swept away homes, vehicles and livestock. Airborne Coast Guard crews spotted dead cows floating down the Nehalem River.