Nestled amidst the banks of three rivers in the verdant Willamette Valley, Canby-area residents are no stranger to precipitation — or even its occasional byproduct: Flooding.
But few events compare to the storms and flooding of 1996, which pushed river and creek waters far beyond their banks 25 years ago, displacing thousands and causing millions of dollars in damage.
The first thing to remember is there was not “one” major flood of ’96. In fact, there were three distinct and devastating flooding events that year. The year was also bookended by major floods that are sometimes conflated: one in November 1995 — often remembered as the Veterans Day flood — and another in January ’97.
When the skies opened Monday night, Feb. 6, 1996 — and stayed open for four days — Milwaukie resident Tim Lane was initially reminded of that nightmare from three months earlier, when heavy rains on Veterans Day pushed the chocolate-brown waters of nearby Mount Scott Creek spilling over its banks and into his and his neighbors’ front yards.
“We got rid of the gravel in the sandbags three weeks ago, stored it in a pile out back,” Hale, dressed in a rain slicker and knee-high rubber boots outside his home at R’Layne Apartments on Southeast Lake Road, told The Oregonian at the time. “We didn’t think we’d have this problem again.”
It quickly became evident, however, that not only was Hale and his neighbors having this problem again — this time, it would be far worse.
By late Tuesday afternoon, firefighters and rescue workers had massed along South Shady Road near the Molalla River, where water had seeped into the garages and basements of some homes and created moats around others. More than 40 mostly elderly residents were being evacuated, with the City of Molalla scrambling to set up an emergency shelter for those who had nowhere to go.
“I wonder what we did to make Mother Nature so mad,” Roy Ferris, 47, wondered aloud, a white cowboy hat keeping his head dry.
One older couple waited for rescue from one of the fire department’s five boats — surrounded by a pile of suitcases and bags.
“Uh, ma’am, we can’t take all that,” a firefighter told her. “How about a toothbrush?”
In Canby, the flooding was particularly bad along a Molalla tributary known as Alder Creek. The neighborhood was known to be prone to high waters during heavy rains, but few on Alder Creek Lane remembered it ever being as bad as it was that February.
“This is bad. This is the first time I’ve seen flooding this high,” said Kim Scheafer, as she and her family waded through knee-high water in front of their house.
But some of her neighbors, like Charlotte Sweeten, said they would stick it out — ignoring Canby firefighters’ pleas to evacuate.
“I’m not really worried because I pray a lot,” Sweeten told The Oregonian, explaining that she had lost 50 to 60 fir trees in a devastating windstorm two months earlier — and welcomed a baby calf during a freak ice storm the week prior. She named it Frosty. “I guess God doesn’t want us to get bored with this weather.”
Hydrologically speaking, the storm was a confluence of several unusual factors: a record amount of rainfall, coming on top of an above-average February snowpack and cold temperatures.
As Jon Lea, a hydrologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, described it at the time: “The ground is frozen solid and won’t absorb any runoff. It’s like dumping 10 inches of water all at once onto a parking lot.”
A similar situation occurred in December 1964, when Oregon experienced a cold snap with near-record snowpacks already in place, followed by a very warm and wet storm that brought record rains. The resulting floods were the worst in Oregon’s history — killing 15 people and causing $148 million in damage.
The floods of 1996 did not surpass those of 22 years earlier — but they came extremely close. Vehicles were swept away like toys and raging rivers roared like lions as low-lying residents fled to higher ground by the thousands and downtown store owners sandbagged their premises throughout the Willamette Valley.
Logs stored at Canby Sand & Gravel were swept downriver like toothpicks, wedging themselves against bridges and riverbanks as the rivers created new tributaries in farmlands that had never been seen before — washing away trees, homes and anything else in the way.
Highway 99E north of Canby was closed due to the threat of mud and rockslides due to the torrential rain. A total of five Clackamas County bridges — including Knights Bridge and Whiskey Hill Bridge — and more than 100 roads countywide were closed that week.
Mudslides and water flows slowed drivers on 99E, 224, 43 and numerous Interstate 5 and 205 exits.
A man from Waldport, 25-year-old Tom Otter, was killed instantly when a tree swept up in a rockslide crushed the roof of his truck while stopped near Philomath. His two young children, who were with him in the truck, miraculously escaped injury.
When the heavenly floodgates finally closed Friday, Feb. 9, muddy waters enveloped and, in some places, consumed hundreds of Canby homes and businesses. The worst damage was along the industrial strip of 99E near the Molalla River. Dozens of businesses were swamped and about 215 people were evacuated from Riverside RV Park.
The mobile homes — more than 100 in total — were relocated to the Canby Square parking lot and unused land just east of what was then Jarboe’s Grill (now the Wild Hare Saloon).
“The only thing we need now is a good earthquake,” Mark Jepson joked to the Canby Herald. “I just wish property values were cheaper in Canby because I don’t think the RV park will be open to the public again soon.”
About 125 Barlow residents were also evacuated as a result of dikes giving way upstream. Some residents fought to protect their property with sandbags from Canby Builders Supply and sand provided by a local Boy Scout troop.
The Canby Grove Conference Center, just west of Knights Bridge, was one of the hardest-hit places in Canby, with floodwaters pouring onto the 54-acre grounds by Wednesday and chasing about 40 residents — staff and family — from their homes.
“I believe the Lord prepared us for them,” said JoAnn Gorton as she and husband Jerry, the center’s assistant director, welcomed 14 of the displaced staff members to share their three-bedroom home.
Most of the city was spared, though water did pool at the intersection of Grant and 99E and outside the library on North Holly Street.
In neighboring Molalla, the flood was an unmitigated disaster. By Wednesday, the power was out, the city’s sewage treatment plant has burst a dike and was spewing raw sewage into Bear Creek, and the city’s water intake pump had failed, meaning there was — as the poet ironically said — “water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
“Other than that, it’s a peaceful day in the neighborhood,” a frazzled City Administrator Harvey Barnes quipped to a reporter.
Barlow resident and Canby Sand & Gravel watchman Mike Mollgard woke Thursday morning to a scene from a nightmare — in his words, a “wall of water” outside his front door.
“It was frothing white and carrying trees — whole trees, roots and all,” he recalled.
Too scared to grab more than his jeans, a jacket and his old dog, Barney, Mollgard jumped in his truck and headed for higher ground, eventually using a flashlight to signal and Oregon National Guard helicopter crew for rescue.
Barney refused to get in the chopper. So Mollgard left the window down in the truck so the dog could jump out and swim to safety, if need be.
“I’ve got my life and my health,” he told a reporter after his ordeal. “That’s the main thing.”
(The dog, by the way, was fine.)
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