Gorge Floods of ’96 revisited

20 YEARS LATER: Donna Marie Logue, Columbia Gorge Hotel employee, holds the front page of the Feb. 14, 1996 Hood River News Thursday at the same vantage point as the photo in 1996.

Roads ruined. Houses damaged. Irrigation systems broken.

“Flood damage tops $9 million,” read the Feb. 10, 1996, Hood River News story, a grim summary of the impact of two days of truly bad weather — Feb. 6-7, 1996.

As Mike Doke wrote in that years Feb. 10 edition, “Effects from this week’s once-in-a-generation floods across Hood River County will become more clear as high water recedes.

“But one thing’s a sure bet.

“The flooding — the result of lingering snow and ice eventually melted in lower levels by nearly 5.5 inches of rain — caught nearly everyone off guard.

“The result was a muddy mess.

“Hood River Experiment Station recorded 3.36 inches of rain in a 24-hour period beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday. Another 1.97 inches fell Wednesday.”

Kids were sent from school, phone service was interrupted, and roads throughout the region severed. It proved to be a bad year for weather, starting with deep snows and the freeze that set things up for the flooding in early February 1996. Trails and park facilities were found to be heavily damaged. (In 2016, a similar wind- and snow-related damage scenario exists in local forests, discovered by National Scenic Area officials, and reported in Hood River News last week.)

But the drastic effects of the 1996 floods would not be in any way matched for another 10 years, when in November 2006 the Hood River blew a rock-and-debris cork in the Hood River off the slope of Mount Hood and sent millions of tons of water mud and debris down the valley, knocking out roads and bridges and creating the recreation-friendly Sandbar, as it is now known, where the Hood meets the Columbia. But for now, 20 years after the fact, we turn our attention to February 1996, with these excerpts from the Hood River News.

Pump, Dig, Dry-Out Begin Storm isolates Gorge as slides plug routes

By APRIL LEE

Complete isolation.

Those are the only two words to describe the situation Mid-Columbia residents found themselves in after heavy rains and rapid flooding closed roadways on all sides of the Gorge region.

Shortly after the rain hit Wednesday, mud slides and road washouts closed Interstate 84, Highway 35, Highway 26, and State Route 14 in Washington. Thursday morning, air traffic in the Gorge was also restricted to all but emergency medical flights.

For hours, Gorge residents were literally isolated, unable to use any route to leave the area.

By Friday morning, some routes were opened. Highway 35 and Highway 26 were clear of slides and passenger cars were being allowed through. State Route 14 was open between Bingen and Vancouver to passenger cars only.

Interstate 84 was still closed Friday. No reopening has been scheduled yet.

This is the first time many law enforcement officials and longtime Hood River residents can remember that all routes connecting the Gorge with the outside world were closed at the same time.

“A couple of times in the past we have been isolated for a matter of hours, from snowstorms and such, but not anything as extensive as this,” said Bob Lynch, former Hood River County sheriff.

“We’ve never seen anything as bad as this. There were always alternative routes to take,” Lynch said.

While numerous roadways throughout the county were closed due to washouts or massive debris blocking the road, the major problems occurred on main highways.

A massive mudslide Wednesday evening just west of Cascade Locks at milepost 35 closed all lanes of Interstate 84. The freeway is expected to remain closed for at least three or four days, said Oregon Highway Department Permit Specialist Pete Kaster.

Cleanup crews were pulled out of the area Thursday because the debris was still unstable and there was a possibility of another slide, he said.

A second slide occurred Thursday night, again covering both sides of the freeway, Kaster explained.

Interstate 84 was also closed east of Hood River near Rowena Wednesday evening, due to a mudslide. That slide was cleared up by early Thursday morning.

Highway 35 was closed at Cooper Spur Road late Wednesday and Thursday because of a mudslide.

Highway 26 was also closed due to numerous mudslides between Mount Hood and the Portland area.

The road closures caused residents and visitors to the Gorge to seek shelter wherever they could find it. As emergency Red Cross shelter was set up in Cascade Locks and Hood River to house those without electricity or visitors that could not find hotel rooms.

The shelter in Cascade Locks, housed in the school cafeteria, had 55 people stay Wednesday night. A large portion of the group was from a Greyhound tour bus that was stranded in the Gorge, unable to head back to Portland. With all the motels and hotels full in Cascade locks, the tour participants sought shelter at the cafeteria.

A number or Dodson-Warrendale residents that were evacuated from their homes were also at the shelter.

More than 30 volunteers were helping out at the shelter, serving breakfast and handing out blankets.

“This city pulls together real well,” said Luella Calvin, shelter coordinator.

The shelter at Hood River’s Riverside Church only served a few people throughout the storm.

The numerous road closures also hindered communication and the transport of necessary goods.

On Thursday, there was no incoming or outgoing mail. Mail trucks were unable to travel from Portland, which left all Gorge communities without mail.

Phone lines throughout the area were also jammed up due to heavy phone traffic, said Sprint’s communication manager Tom Yates.

The bulk of the phone problems was in Klickitat County, but the phone company is asking all Gorge residents to limit their phone calls to emergency calls only, he said.

Opening of a second Hood River McDonald’s restaurant has been pushed back to Tuesday, Feb. 13, because of heavy rains. The Cascade Commons Shopping Center restaurant was scheduled to open Saturday Feb. 10, 1996.

Homes, boat take beating

By CAROLYN DEATCH

It may not have been time for the ark, exactly, but it was definitely time to move the sheep … and the furniture and the vehicles and anything else that couldn’t withstand over a foot of water.

Cheryl Thomas, resident of Meadowbrook road, is one of the many who sustained property damage in the valley due to this week’s flooding. Friends and family came to the rescue as the water level started climbing around her home Tuesday.

First things first meant that Thomas, her father and her sister loaded up 14 pregnant ewes in a livestock trailer and moved them to the family cattle ranch in halfway, three hours away.

“They were ready to give birth,” said her friend Gene Krieg of Parkdale, “and it could have happened anytime.”

Krieg had been taking care of the house in Thomas’ absence. As he watched the water level rise, he knew by 8 a.m. Wednesday that it was time to move the furniture out of the house. Mark Trejo, a foreman for Nakamura Orchards, brought four men, and adding the help of three neighbor women, the crew went to work. Loading the furniture into a moving van as quickly as possible, they struggled to stay ahead of the rising water.

— Feb. 10, 1996

Flood damage tops $9 million mark

By MIKE DOKE

One week ago, Hood River County residents were bracing for the most devastating flood in over three decades.

This week, get ready for the bill.

Damage in Hood River County is estimated at $9.5 million and the price tag — like area creeks last Wednesday and Thursday — is rising.

County officials continue to collect damage estimates from various agencies. The preliminary estimate Saturday was $8.95 million.

The higher figure was outlined Monday during a Hood River County Emergency Management meeting.

The major route to Portland, Interstate 84, reopened with single-lane traffic Tuesday. Its status is day-to-day, as crews remove tons of mud and debris, said Oregon State Police Lt. Richard Wingfield.

A sinkhole has opened near a mudslide in Dodson. Saturated mud is adding to the difficulty of reopening the freeway.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials toured the 250,000 cubic yard slide Tuesday afternoon.

Saturday, Hood River County entered into a verbal agreement with the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to assist residents in east Multnomah County, in the Dodson-Warrendale Area, said County Administrator Jim Azumano.

Highway 35 near Sherwood Campground was opened to traffic, but only with a pilot car escort, Wingfield said. The route may be completely clear by Thursday or Friday this week.

Washington Highway 14 was open, but heavy traffic was being blamed for causing damage along that route.

Greg Lewis, Cascade Locks city administrator, said trucks hauling debris from Interstate 84 slides were creating a hazard in his town because of excessive speeds. He requested more county sheriff patrols.

Dump trucks are hauling the mud to Hood River Sand and Gravel in Cascade Locks, he reported.

Potentially the greatest damage county-wide occurred in the Farmer’s Irrigation District. Costs may be as low as $1 million but could exceed $3.5 million.

It’s too early to pin down exact estimates, said Jerry Bryan, district manager. Some 3,000 feet of a low-lying canal was washed out, he said.

Rebuilding the system will be more expensive if the district opts to rebuild it outside flood-prone areas, Bryan explained.

Later Monday, Tod Hilstad, district superintendent, reported Farmer’s Irrigation’s No. 3 hydroelectric project was destroyed, costing the district $10,000 each day it cannot sell power to Pacific Power.

The project was frozen when an arctic air system dominated the weather two weeks ago. It was knocked out during last Wednesday’s flooding along Dead Point, Pine, Ditch and Green Point creeks, Hilstad said.

Final Farmer’s Irrigation District costs will be presented to the agency’s board at its Feb. 21 meeting. The district may seek Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mitigating funds to build the hydroelectric project away from flood areas, Hilstad said.

On the other side of the county, officials feared they had lost the Neal Creek Bridge, a controversial $350,000 crossing on an isolated stretch of Neal Creek Road completed this past summer.

Monday, it was announced that the bridge was still standing — the problem was with Neal Creek. Flooding caused a course shift away from the bridge, county officials reported.

Some 3,000 feet of road was washed away along Neal Creek, which was reportedly 300 feet wide at spots during the flood’s peak.

Like Farmer’s Irrigation District, other public agencies and private property owners may be eligible for direct aid or low-interest FEMA loans.

That became possible last Wednesday when Hood River County was one of 17 Oregon and 13 Washington counties declared disaster areas.

Officials from agencies throughout the county are spending the week assessing damage.

They will meet at the county courthouse at 9 a.m. this Friday for another review.

During Monday’s session, Azumano praised the efforts of Radio Operators of the Gorge, which maintained a line of communication during last week’s emergency.

Traffic routes were improving throughout the county, with work continuing Monday to make Kinglsey and Central Vale accessible, said Jim Lyon, county public works director.

Wy’east and Toll Bridge roads remained closed because of extensive erosion, and three families remained stranded on the southern reaches of Fir Mountain Road, which was hit by a slide.

Other problem areas — Country Club, Indian Creek, Barrett, Reed, Meadowbrook and Glass — were reopened, though some hazards persisted.

Shoulder reconstruction and other repairs will take time to complete with the main routes a priority, said Lyon.

Damage to roads, streets and bridges was placed at $1.2 million by county officials.

While many homes suffered minor problems, only four reported major damage. One residence along Neal Creek Road was destroyed, it was reported.

An early estimate on private property damage was placed at just under $250,000.

More completed estimates from throughout the county are due at Friday’s emergency group meeting.

The Hood River County Chapter of the American Red Cross assisted about 120 people during the weather crisis.

Ninety-six were at the Cascade Locks City Hall shelter, another eight stayed at the Riverside Community Church shelter, and the rest were housed in local motels.

National Guard members assisted the county in mop-up, traffic control and assisting local residents. They remained on duty this week.