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Flood of '96: Two decades later, what have we learned?

CITY OF BEAVERTON PHOTO - The intersection of Southwest Cedar Hills and Hall boulevards turned into a lake when Beaverton Creek overflowed its banks during torrential rains that struck the region in early February 1996.This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Flood of 1996, the devastating flood that hit the Willamette Valley, closing roads, shuttering businesses and enveloping the Portland area.

It was the largest natural disaster to strike Tigard and Tualatin in years. The flood caused millions of dollars in damage, impacted hundreds of thousands of lives, and is responsible for at least eight deaths across the region.

It was, in many ways, the perfect storm. Heavy snow and ice hit the Portland area in the days preceding the flood, that followed by a torrential downpour of rain that resulted in what became known as the 100 Years Flood.

“It was a trial by fire,” said Mark Jockers, a spokesman with Clean Water Services, a sewer agency and water resources management utility across Washington County.

Jockers was a public involvement coordinator in 1996, managing the agency’s watershed planning efforts. Clean Water Services — then known as the Unified Sewerage Agency, or USA — had advertised an open house for weeks with the topic: “Flooding, and how the agency would respond.”

The coincidence wasn’t lost on Jockers.

“We were supposed to be asking folks about where they had trouble with flooding in the past. We learned where those problems areas were pretty quick,” he said.

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This story is part one is a series of stories remembering the Flood of '96. Click the links below to read more about the flood and its impact on the Tualatin area.

Twenty years later, Tualatin remembers the great flood

The Times' reporters look back on covering the biggest story of the century

The Times' reporters look back on covering the biggest story of the century

The flood didn’t just impact Tualatin. Iconic images of flooded Lake Oswego and Portland were broadcast nationwide. President Bill Clinton made a trip to visit the flood-soaked areas.

Jay Wilson, resilience coordinator with Clackamas County Emergency Management, said that the area has changed the way it thinks about flooding, including rules about building homes above flood levels.

“It’s a method that is becoming more and more favored at the federal level,” Wilson said. “It’s about avoiding flooding, avoiding future risk, getting above the flood plain or out of it.”

Oregon Office of Emergency Management coordinator Kelly Jo Craigmiles said her organization tried to learn from the flood.

“We focused on the response and many different angles,” she said. “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 said.

“That is what we have been looking at since the 1996 floods,” said 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.”

Above anything else, Jockers said, the Flood of ‘96 gave everyone a lesson in respect.

“What really struck me about the flooding — and you could see it if you saw the flooding out of an airplane — was that it gave us all some recognition of the tremendous value of flood plain storage.”

Much of the Tualatin River isn’t in urban centers like Cook Park, Jockers said. It’s in forest and farmland. The river needs these areas where it can flood so that the damage isn’t translated into lost homes or businesses.

“Without as much flood plain storage as we have in the agricultural area, this flood would have been catastrophic,” Jockers said. “It reminded us of the importance of flood plain storage and that’s impacted us as we’ve worked on restoration programs over the last 20 years.”

In the summer, Jockers said, the Tualatin River passes about 180 cubic feet of water per second.

“In 1996, we were probably up to about 25,000 cubic feet per second. We’re talking orders of magnitude larger,” Jockers said. “That was a reminder for those of us in the public works business, and for the people that live along the river and urban streams, just how powerful the river is and how far these things can extend.”

Since the flooding, Jockers said, technology has advanced, allowing agencies like Clean Water Services to have a better handle on situations.

“We’re able to look in the rearview mirror and fine tune,” Jockers said. “For agencies like ours, and cities like Tualatin, I think we’re far better organized and prepared than we were in 1996. We were setting up emergency sandbagging stations for folks like it was a special thing, but today, that network is all in place. (For Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, the cities, Clean Water Services, they’re) all standard protocol and are regularly available. None of that was there then.”

The Flood of ‘96 wasn’t the only time that the Tualatin River has flooded. Previous floods were recorded several times over the last two centuries, including floods in the 1970s, 60s, 30s and 1890s.

That says something, said Brian Wegener, advocacy manager with Tualatin Riverkeepers, a group which works to protect the river and its tributaries.

The Great Flood has come before, Wegener said, and it will come again.

“When you go back and look at the historical records, the floods happen every 30 years, fairly regularly,” Wegener said. “The big issue here is that we’ve got to remember that this will happen again. Tualatin is looking for a new City Hall site, and the places they are looking were once surrounded by flood water. That doesn’t seem like smart planning to me.”

It takes millions of dollars to fix major flooding problems, and coming up with the cash isn’t always easy.

“I think funding is a difficult part. It’s worthwhile to invest money up front to help prevent the money we will have to spend after,” Holien explained.

There are a few solutions to choose from. Repairs involve creating the foundation, scaffolding and implementing changes to prepare for the next flood.

“We aren’t 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.”

Joseph Dames, with The Times’ news partner KOIN 6 News contributed to this report.