There are more than 700 households in Johnson Creek's 100-year floodplain, an area subject to devastating floods predicted to occur once per century, or, put another way, with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. Most are in the Lents neighborhood, with a smattering in Powellhurst-Gilbert, two of Portland's neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of affordable housing.
In 62 years living near flood-prone Johnson Creek, Chris Taylor has never had to evacuate or seen any flood waters approach her house.
But the 77-year-old widow worries about being forced out of her home by the spiking cost of flood insurance.
Insurance claims filed after Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina put the nations flood insurance fund in the hole. So Congress mandated, in 2012 and 2014, that homeowners across the country pay yearly rate hikes of up to 18 percent.
Taylor, who lives on $2,000 a month, had to use her credit card to pay this years $1,400 bill, and her flood insurance tab is expected to jump to $3,200 in a little more than four years.
If I lose the house, I dont know where to go, says Taylor, who took out a new mortgage to cover her husbands health care expenses before he died. She owes more on the mortgage than her house is worth.
All my memories are here, she says. This is all Ive got.
Taylors not the only one worried.
There are more than 700 households in Johnson Creeks 100-year floodplain, an area subject to devastating floods predicted to occur once per century, or, put another way, with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. Most are in the Lents neighborhood, with a smattering in Powellhurst-Gilbert, two of Portlands neighborhoods with the greatest concentration of affordable housing.
The emphasis right now has to be in helping people stay in their homes, says state Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, who represents the area. Theres a lot of folks there that are just struggling to maintain their existence in this area.
Big project didnt solve problem
Portlands Bureau of Environmental Services has been working to alleviate Johnson Creek flooding for years, notably the Foster Floodplain Project completed in 2012, which relocated 60 homes to provide more space for Johnson Creek to bulge.
But that $28 million project was designed to avert nuisance floods, the kind that closed down Foster Road every one and a half to two years, as well as bigger floods that hit once every six to eight years. Thats akin to protecting a house from modest earthquakes but not the devastating ones.
When spiking flood insurance rates brought the issue to a head again, Bureau of Environmental Services realized it couldnt address bigger floods without help, lots of it.
In July, Gov. Kate Brown endorsed the Lents Stabilization and Job Creation Collaborative and assigned the project to Oregon Solutions. A former state program handed off to Portland State University, Oregon Solutions serves as a giant cat herder for complex intergovernmental projects, bringing together diverse forces to work together. In August, the Portland City Council signed on, bringing funding and a mandate for various city bureaus to work collaboratively with state agencies and others.
Organizers decided to tackle three interwoven goals at once ending Johnson Creek flooding, creating jobs, and helping people save their homes says Michael Mills, the Oregon Solutions project manager.
Flooding inhibits development
Johnson Creek flooding has held back development, particularly of the 100-acre Freeway Lands site along the creek thats zoned for industry and could hold hundreds of more jobs. Theres more underutilized land north of Foster and Southeast 111th Avenue that could be redeveloped for industry once the flooding threat is gone, says Nick Christensen, a Lents resident serving as community representative for the project.
Project leaders want to minimize displacement of residents due to unaffordable flood insurance, and via future gentrification once the flooding danger is lifted and the area becomes more appealing.
Youve got people that have affordable housing but they can be pushed out of it, says Michelle Rudd, a land use lawyer and Portland Planning and Sustainability commissioner who is co-convener of the Oregon Solutions project along with Reardon.
The project, if carried out well, can fulfill multiple city goals, Rudd says. It can spur more good-paying, blue-collar jobs in a closer-in area with good access to I-205, the MAX line and the airport. It can improve Johnson Creek and add natural area in East Portland. And it can preserve affordable housing.
The Oregon Solutions project is expected to take at least two years to map out strategies, and work on funding.
A 2009 study estimated the project could cost about $100 million, though thats a very rough estimate, says Marie Walkiewicz, a BES environmental program coordinator.
One ambitious goal is filling in parts of the floodplain to allow industrial use of the land, such as at the Freeland Lands site, and provide new floodplain elsewhere. Thats similar to whats done routinely with wetlands, but project leaders arent aware of any successful models for it being done with a creek floodplain.
There may be examples out there, but we have not found any yet, Walkiewicz says.
Christensen, whose flood insurance bill jumped from $1,300 in 2008 to $2,200 now, figures the combined bills paid by Lents-area residents are sending $1.3 million a year in premiums out of the local economy. Keeping that money in peoples pockets could aid ongoing redevelopment efforts in the area, he says. And adding hundreds of local jobs could bring customers for the new restaurants, brewpubs and coffee shops popping up on Southeast 92nd Avenue and Foster, he says.
The citys Foster Floodplain Project turned an oft-flooded residential area on the banks of the creek into the scenic 63-acre Foster Floodplain Natural Area, opened in 2012. That added 120 acre-feet of flood storage, where the creek could expand without threatening developed areas, Walkiewicz says. That equals a foot of water spread over 120 acres.
To protect the area from future 100-year floods, another 125 acre-feet of flood storage capacity needs to be added, she says. That could require an additional 36 acres of land.
The best way to achieve that, Walkiewicz says, is expanding existing wetlands, such as land along the Springwater Corridor Trail, and near Beggars Tick Marsh, a 20-acre wetlands off Southeast 111th Avenue between Foster Road and Harold Street.
Thats the area where Chris Taylor lives, near Beggars Tick.
She says she and her husband didnt need flood insurance for years. By 1996, it cost them only about $300. By 2021, it figures to be more than 10 times higher.
If the Oregon Solutions project is successful, it can ward off major Johnson Creek floods, and the need for flood insurance.
Flooding in area not new
Johnson Creek in East Portlands Lents neighborhood probably has been flooding for 10,000 years, says Marie Walkiewicz, environmental program coordinator for Portlands Bureau of Environmental Services.
That wasnt so much of a problem when the creek was lined with farms and mills, which took advantage of the water for power and irrigation.
But when homes and businesses started filling in the floodplain, that spelled trouble. In the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration, thinking it would help flooding, installed riprap on the sides of the creek to channel the waters. That was a mistake. When rains were heavy, the creek routinely jumped the banks, flooding homes perched along the creek and Foster Road business district.
The floodplain goes very far from the creek because the area is so flat, Walkiewicz says.
It used to flood about every one and a half to two years, often shutting down Foster Road.
Then the city began buying out homeowners, eventually relocating 60 homes to give the creek room to expand. January 2012, before the city finished work on the Foster Floodplain Natural Area between Southeast 104th and 111th avenues, Johnson Creek rose more than two feet higher than the historic flood stage.
The creek waters stayed in the newly enlarged basin, and Foster Road remained dry.
Since the city began keeping records in the 1940s, its never witnessed a 100-year flood. But there have been six 25-year floods, which have a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year, when the creek surges higher than 14.25 to 14.5 feet. The biggest of them all was last Dec. 7, when the creek reached 15.3 feet.
Gary Sargent, who owns Sargents Motorsports on Foster and Southeast 102nd Avenue, says floodwaters entered his shop and reached four feet high, almost to the windows.
A few blocks to the north, on a recent walking tour, Lents resident Nick Christensen stopped at Southeast 102nd and Knight Street, where the terrain dips. This is where youre going to have the most impacts in a 100-year flood, he says, pointing to houses in all directions.
By the numbers
Residential land: 142 acres
Single-family homes: 630
Rowhouses/attached homes: 13
Adult foster care facilities: 2
Two- to four-unit plexes: 29
Vacant residential lots: 50
Commercial property: 5 acres
Industrial property: 36 acres
Other employment land: 41 acres
Measuring Johnson Creek floods
Johnson Creek traditionally flooded Foster Road whenever the creek reached more than 11 feet there.
As the Foster Floodplain Natural Area was being developed in January 2012, the creek reached 13.2 feet without flooding
The U.S. Geologic Survey defines 14 feet as major flood stage.
A flood predicted to occur every 25 years, or with a 4 percent chance of happening in any given year, would be 14.25 to 14.5 feet.
Thats occurred six times since records started to be kept in the early-1940s: in 2015, 2009, 1996 (twice), 1964 and 1937.
The highest flood on record was 15.33 feet, last Dec. 7
The actual damage from a flood may depend more on volume and duration of flooding than on the peak height of water in the creek
There hasnt been a 100-year flood since data has been kept. Those have a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
Source: Portland Bureau of Environmental Services
Cost-benefit analysis of a project similar to what Oregon Solutions might do in Lents*
Acquire land/buildings for flood storage: $27 million
Expand flood storage, restore creek: $45 million
Improve Foster Road: $7 million
Other street improvements: $10 million
Avoid flood insurance payments: $1.5 million/year
Added local wages from new jobs: $24 million/year
Increased property value in employment/industrial lands: $105.5 million
Increased property value in residential lands: $5 million
Net added property taxes: $800,000/year
(Doesnt count potential state income taxes)
*Based on a 2013 Leland study commissioned by the Portland Development Commission