Floodwaters raged through Lake Oswego 20 years ago this month, leaving behind more than $41 million in damage
It will forever be remembered as the day a normally placid Oswego Lake became the raging Oswego River.
Twenty years ago on Feb. 9, 1996 record rainfall and snow melt combined to send the Willamette and Tualatin rivers surging over their banks and into area homes and businesses. And when the Tualatin River came rushing over the Oswego Canal headgate near Childs Road, it was more four times more than the lake was able to discharge at its McVey Avenue release point.
Officials ripped open the outlet under the McVey Avenue bridge and cut off the top of the U.S. Bank parking lot to siphon water off Lakewood Bay and across State Street, sending it streaming down to the Willamette River via a sandbag course through the Oswego Pointe Apartments.
By the time the lake crested, hundreds of waterfront homes and dozens of downtown businesses had suffered severe damage in a destructive path that stretched from the Bay Roc apartments and Lakewood Bay all the way back to West Bay and along the canal.
Thousands of volunteers from prison inmates and National Guard troops to city officials and schoolchildren worked tirelessly along the canal and lakefront to place an estimated 100,000 sandbags containing 4,000 yards of sand in an attempt to divert the deluge.
But despite those efforts, floodwaters ripped out boathouses and yards along the canal, wrecking everything in their way. At the bridge where South Shore Boulevard crosses the canal, shattered debris gathered along the pilings. Along North Shore Road, some residents had as much as four feet of water in their homes.
McVey Avenue was closed for days after rushing water tore away at the road and bridge supports. Among the downtown businesses hit hardest: Lakeshore Motor Hotel, U.S. Bank, Lakeside Plaza, the Beachcomber Restaurant, the Lake Shore Building and the Lake Theater, which was submerged in several feet of water and dirt for days, its electrical systems and seats destroyed. Along the Willamette River, Kadels Auto Body took in about seven feet of water.
Within days, President Bill Clinton toured the area and met with the mayors of eight cities in the Willamette Valley, including Lake Oswego Mayor Alice Schlenker. Officials said 400 homes and about 50 businesses were damaged in Lake Oswego; estimates later put the total loss at more than $41 million.
Could such a devastating flood happen again?
Jeff Ward, lake manager for the Lake Oswego Corporation, says its unlikely. In 2010, the Lake Corp. installed a pneumatically operated spillway gate that dramatically improved its ability to release water from the lake.
We can release more water now than was coming into the lake in 1996, Ward says, an improvement that allowed more than 280 homes to be removed from the areas 100-year floodplain.
Jay Wilson, resilience coordinator with Clackamas County Emergency Management, says officials throughout the area have changed the way they think about flooding, including rules about building homes above flood levels.
Its a method that is becoming more and more favored at the federal level, Wilson says. Its about avoiding flooding, avoiding future risk, getting above the flood plain or out of it.
Oregon Office of Emergency Management coordinator Kelly Jo Craigmiles says her organization tried to learn from the 1996 flood.
We focused on the response and many different angles, she says. What did we do? What can we do to make things better in the future? How we can better assist the government and citizens?
That plan now resonates through OEM, she says.
That is what we have been looking at since the 1996 floods, says OEM Deputy Director Laurie Holien. (We are) looking for areas that have repetitive problems with flooding and trying to come up with projects to restore the natural areas so we can have storm retention areas that can store water and not building structures on those areas.
It takes millions of dollars to fix major flooding problems, but Wilson and other officials say finding the money is crucial.
We arent so much recovering from the last flood (as) we are recovering for the next flood that we know is going to happen, Wilson stressed. To be in a better position and to lean forward (and) find alternatives for people.
Still, Ward says, for Lake Oswego to see a repeat of the 1996 flooding now, It would have to be a flood of historic proportions."
Reporter Joseph Dames of The Reviews partner KOIN 6 News contributed to this story.
Look for a slideshow of more photos from the 1996 flood online at www.lakeoswegoreview.com.