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Remembering the great flood of '96

Remembering the great flood of '96

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After several decades in law enforcement and a year under his belt as Linn County sheriff, Dave Burright was used to getting phone calls at all hours of the day and night.

It was just part of his job.

But Burright, who retired in 2005, said he will always remember a call that woke him and his wife, Linda, in the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 8, 1996.

It would lead the experienced lawman and Deputy Rodney David — both emergency dive team members — on a journey through the darkness to Mehama in Marion County, where blinding rain had caused the North Fork of the Santiam River to overflow its banks, trapping a man and a woman in an RV.

It was while viewing the situation illuminated by lights from emergency vehicles that the two men realized they might be trapped as well — and that they really needed to get back to the Sheriff’s Office to field the flurry of emergency calls that would undoubtedly ensue.

Monday marks the 25th anniversary of that great flood, a multiday event that caused nearly $1 billion in damage statewide, claimed eight lives — including that of 9-year-old Amber Bargfrede from Scio — raised overflowing creeks and rivers to record levels and destroyed homes and businesses from Eugene to Portland.

There was 3 feet of water in downtown Scio. Canoes paddling through the streets became a common sight. Over a four-day period, the mid-valley was hammered by more than 15 inches of rain, three times the monthly average for February.

South Corvallis was cut off from the rest of the city for two days.

The Sweet Home Police Department in the basement of City Hall flooded — saved only by pumping water out of the building around the clock for days — and numerous Linn and Benton County families were rescued by fire department and law enforcement boats.

Logs and other flood-borne debris pounded the Pleasant Valley Bridge over the South Santiam River west of Sweet Home and the Holley Bridge over the Calapooia River south of town.

The Willamette River crested at 28.5 feet in downtown Portland, 10 feet above flood level. The water rose 3½ feet above flood level in Corvallis and 18 feet above in Oregon City.

No warning

The flood “surprised everyone," Burright said. "I don’t remember us getting any warnings at all. It was a shock to me when we realized what was happening.”

In the predawn hours of Feb. 8, Burright said, he and Deputy David met at the sheriff’s office in Albany, loaded up their gear for a water rescue and agreed the quickest route to Mehama would be to head up I-5 and then take Highway 22 east.

“It was really dark and raining like mad,” Burright said of the early morning ride into the canyon. “We couldn’t see anything around us.”

They were not prepared for what they would see on their quest to help the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

“We got to the site and, as we came around the last corner, we saw a number of emergency vehicles with their headlights on,” Burright said. “They were pointing their lights at what looked like an RV on an island surrounded by a raging river.”

Everyone was stunned. A hovercraft was eventually used to rescue the stranded couple.

Burright said the severity of the situation quickly manifested itself.

“I looked at Rodney, and he looked at me,” Burright said. “We wondered that if it was like this there, what had we just passed on our way up the mountain? What was out there that we didn’t see?”

Burright said he got on his car radio and contacted the office.

“The dispatcher said the valley was starting to get reports of flooding and rapidly rising waters all over the county,” Burright said. “And I realized where we were and that we really needed to be back at the office.”

A downed tree or mudslide had closed the highway, and for a few hours Burright and David were unable to leave Mehama. They finally made it back to Albany after daylight.

“I was really anxious, but when we got back to the office, our folks had already set up an emergency operations center and it was working like a well-oiled clock,” Burright recalled. “A lot of us didn’t get home to change clothes for at least 36 hours, and it was two or three days before we really got home.”

Burright said the Sheriff’s Office and area fire departments responded to emergency calls all over the mid-valley.

“We made numerous rescues and welfare checks and made sure both people and livestock were OK,” Burright said.

Burright said he learned some good lessons from the event.

“It reaffirmed how great the people I worked with were,” Burright said. “It is in times like that people really come together. I am grateful for our staff as well as all of the fire departments that got the job done.”

Burright said he also learned “In times like that, stay out of your crew’s way and let them do their jobs. Eliminate roadblocks for them and provide support from the 30,000-foot level, while looking ahead for possible issues.”

Burright said the full impact of the event didn't hit him until the floodwaters began to subside.

“I drove out Highway 34 and stopped by Jim’s Fruit Stand,” Burright said. “It was like a lake in front of me. It was the oddest feeling. I drove out Oakville Road and water was still over the top of it. It makes you feel small.”

Pineapple Express

Mid-valley communities are used to floods, but this one resulted from a weather pattern with the seemingly harmless title of the Pineapple Express, the final link in a chain of unusual events that began in late January and culminated in disaster in early February.

Unseasonably warm air — 40 degrees warmer than Western Oregon had been experiencing — and a deluge of rain turned the heavy snowpack in the Cascades into a river of slush. A thick layer of ice prevented the runoff from being absorbed into the soil and sent it cascading into the valley.

Although there was extensive damage up and down the valley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated its dam projects helped reduce potential losses by more than $3.2 billion.

Damage occurred in several states in the Pacific Northwest, with Oregon and Washington taking the brunt of the storm. A national disaster was declared by President Bill Clinton.

Sweet Home Police Chief Bob Burford got up early that Thursday morning.

“I knew it had been raining hard all night,” Burford said. “My wife, Cynde, and I had finished building a new home a couple years earlier, and when I went outside, I had groundwater coming into the garage. I started to deal with that, and about that time I started getting calls from the office. Water was pouring down the stairwell into the Police Department.”

At the time, Sweet Home’s police station and jail were in the basement of City Hall.

“That took priority,” Burford said. “The Fire Department and Public Works Department began pumping water, and our goal was to keep it out of the electrical plug-ins and away from our computers.”

Burford added, “We were able to keep the water level just below the plug-ins. It stayed about 11 inches deep. We kept the pumps going until the water subsided.”

He asked Linn County 911 to take over dispatching for 24 hours “while we revamped and got things set up better.”

Burford said that for several days, his officers cited and released offenders or transported them to the Linn County Jail because they had no facility to hold them in.

“We were inundated with calls,” Burford said. “Everyone in the community had problems, but we stayed operational. The Fire Department was in its new building, and they were hit hard helping people.”

Former Police Chief Gary David had long advocated that the Police Department needed to move out of its basement facility, Burford recalled. The flooding went a long way toward the department moving into a modular building behind City Hall and then opening a new building in 2001.

North Albany

Benton County residents Randall and Kim Kaaz had moved to their new home on Montgomery Place in North Albany only about six months before the flood.

They came from California and Randall was working with Hewlett-Packard, writing procedures for Federal-Metals Credit Union (now Central Willamette Credit Union).

“It was a shock,” Kim said. “We got about 18 inches of water in the house, and we couldn’t get out of our driveway. We had to walk along the fence line of our property and work our way back to 13th Avenue.”

The couple enjoyed raising quail and ducks in their yard and kept exotic saltwater fish in large aquariums in their home’s basement. All were unharmed.

The best news was that their rare 1958 Messerschmitt roadster — one of only 21 known to be in the USA — was not damaged, because they had hoisted the small car onto a table.

The couple remained in their home, living on the second floor, although they did not have electricity.

“We had so much water it floated a new full-size television,” Randall said.

He recalled commenting to a city official that “if they couldn’t get the water down, they might as well stock it with fish.”

Kim said the home had extensive sheetrock and carpet damage.

“We had floating wooden floors, and they really did float,” she said.

Family photos were also damaged by the high water, Kim said. The home was damaged by floodwaters two more times, and the couple moved.


Matt Hiner was 17 when the flood came. He and his mother, Cindy Perry, had to get back and forth to their home on Strawberry Lane near Corvallis in a small rubber raft.

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“We lived off Garden Avenue and Highway 20, and our home was on concrete blocks, like pylons,” explained Hiner, who now lives in Albany. “The water almost reached our front door.”

Hiner said the family was notified the night before the floodwaters arrived. He slept at a friend’s house, and his mother spent the night with his grandparents.

“The next day, the water was already up to the BP station on Highway 20,” Hiner said. “My friend and I bought a cheap raft and we used it to float to our house, where the water was up to our front door.”

Hiner said the American Red Cross provided the family with a voucher and they were able to stay in a motel for almost a week.

“We rowed to the house several times to get stuff we had forgotten,” Hiner said.

Hiner said that although the floodwaters began to recede, there was a dip in the road that remained underwater for months.

For a while, the family used a rope to pull the boat about 200 yards back and forth from the house to a dry spot.

“We figured out pretty quickly that if one person had to leave in the raft before the other, they didn’t have a way to get out of the house.”

Hiner’s mother traded in her two-wheel-drive vehicle for a four-wheel-drive, but even then it took some time before the water subsided enough so the rig did not take on water over its floorboards.

“That was our life for a few months,” Hiner said.


Former Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker and his family were living near Lacomb when the storm hit.

“I was actually working for HP in China, but I happened to be home,” Tucker said. “Our daughter Stephanie had gone into morning basketball practice at Lebanon High School early. When she got out of practice, she went out to her car and there was water inside the car.”

Tucker said she called him and he drove into town in his pickup, but on the way home, high water on Kowitz Road almost swept the truck into the ditch.

“Kowitz Road was underwater all the way to Baptist Church Road,” Tucker said.

Tucker said his brother, Duncan, lived in Scio and used a kayak to paddle out to Richardson Gap Road to view the flooding.


Don Ware is the longtime mayor of Brownsville, but in 1996 he had just purchased the community’s weekly newspaper. He had owned the Brownsville Times for only about a month when the usually tranquil Calapooia River escaped its banks.

“The road between Highway 228 and the bridge to downtown was overflowing with floodwater,” Ware said. “Flooding occurred in quite a few places. The basement of the Presbyterian Church (now the Brownsville Community Church) was full of water.”

Ware said water got into many homes, but the historic downtown business district did not flood.

Ware said he felt overwhelmed as a fledgling newspaperman.

“I was brand new at reporting, and I was struggling trying to figure out a meaningful way to let the public know about this major event,” Ware said. “I think we did a pretty good job letting people know what was happening. Being a weekly gave us some time, but giving the public a view of what happened was definitely a challenge.”

Neal Karo has been a volunteer firefighter in Brownsville for more than 60 years and was headed to work the morning floodwaters rose in the community.

“There definitely was a lot of water,” Karo said. “We went down on Kirk Avenue and tried to pump water out of the ditches to keep the road from flooding.”

Firefighters used a boat to evacuate a woman from her home on the east side of town.

Karo said water got into his home’s garage and there “was four inches of water covering our patio."

His wife, Sue, said that when her husband left the house, “I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back home.”

Stahlbush Island

More than 50 volunteers — many of them members of the Alpha Gammo Rho agricultural fraternity — packed more than 5,000 sandbags to keep water out of the buildings at Stahlbush Island Farms, just across the flood-swollen Willamette River from downtown Corvallis.

Like many others across the state, owners Bill and Karla Chambers were caught off guard by the swiftly rising water.

The couple had founded the diversified farming operation that borders the river 11 years earlier and was used to dealing with high water issues.

“It was definitely a big one,” Karla Chambers said. “We just weren’t as prepared then as we are today. We are much more automated today. We put concrete barriers in place now. We can do in minutes what took a lot of manual labor and time to do then.”

Chambers recalled that although the buildings were saved, there was extensive debris cleanup in the farm fields when the water receded.

“Rivers deposit lots of good soil during flooding events like this, but they also drop a lot of logs, stumps and other debris,” Chambers said.

Chambers invited members of the fraternity and others who helped fill sandbags back then to contact Stahlbush Island Farms.

“We would like to see how they are doing and give them a little gift of some of our products,” Chambers said.

Counting the costs

About four days after the height of the flood, the sun popped out from behind the clouds and the waters began receding.

Linn County officials said 500 homes had received major damage, with the losses estimated at more than $10.6 million, and another 500 homes had lesser damage totaling more than $2.5 million.

Some 230 Linn County businesses experienced more than $2.3 million in damage.

Benton County was still tallying damage totals in the days following the flood. County officials were warning people to not swim in the floodwater, because it contained raw sewage, oil and other chemical waste materials.

Life-changing event

The flood was a life-changing event for Salina Hart, who was an Estacada High School senior in February 1996.

Hart is now the chief of water management for the Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates a network of 13 dams on major tributaries of the Willamette River. She is a key member of the team that makes decisions about reservoir water levels and downstream water flows.

The flood — which nearly destroyed her family’s home — was a key factor in her decision to become a civil engineer and work in the water management field.

“Our family was living in a house on the Clackamas River near Estacada,” Hart said. “I remember watching the water rising in our backyard and gathering our stuff, putting it on the kitchen table. We didn’t know what the river could do.”

It was the family’s first year living near the river and they didn’t know what to expect," Hart said. "We knew enough to build the house on stilts because we knew the river could rise."

Hart said that as the river rose, law enforcement officers came to the family’s door and advised them to evacuate.

Then and now

Today, Hart said, communication systems are much more advanced and the Corps of Engineers’ dams have a primary role of reducing flooding.

“The Corps of Engineers staff works very hard to communicate with emergency managers and the weather service,” Hart said. “Every time we have a flood event, I think about my experiences, how members of my community are affected. We make decisions as a team to reduce the impact of floodwaters on people.”

Hart said the corps can’t eliminate floods, but it can help mitigate their impact.

In the 1996 flood, Hart said, the water stopped a foot from her family home’s main floor, but their yard was destroyed — which made her mother very sad.

Several single-story homes in the area were destroyed.

“It can definitely happen again,” Hart said. “Every year, I think about how we can prepare better. It’s our job.”

Hart said the 13 Willamette Valley Project dams reduce their water levels during the winter for weather events like the one that caused the flood of ’96.

“We have flood capacity storage all through the winter months," Hart said. “We start bringing up water levels in the spring, and we monitor weather conditions constantly. We have lots of daily interaction with our fellow agencies.”

Hart said a flood like that of ’96 “will definitely happen again. It’s just a matter of when.”

The Pineapple Express, the weather pattern responsible for the '96 flood, is something that happens regularly over time.

“What happened in ’96 was that there was thick ice covered by thick snow in the mountains — which, of course, we want in the Pacific Northwest,” Hart said. “But when warm rains came in from the Pacific, that snow melted and the ice prevented it from being absorbed into the ground, which might normally occur.”

The water ran off the mountainsides instead of into the earth, and rivers and streams could not handle the massive amount of water, Hart said. But now, unlike 1996, she's in a position to do something about it.

“I love what I do, I love having this experience,” Hart said. “I’m always thinking about what we can do to help those who live along rivers. Life along a river can be volatile because you never know when the water is going to recede. It’s scary to abandon your belongings. I understand that feeling.”

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.


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