Willamette River: Memories of 1996 

These memories I share in hopes you will face and embrace this powerful river for what it is, what it has been and what it could be, if only we can work together.


By Jess Rojas 

Growing up in inner NE Portland, 1996 was a year I will never forget. My community would be forever shaped by the changing forces of that year. From mandatory minimum sentencing laws like Measure 11, that incarcerated many peers of my generation and neighborhood, to a record fire across the other side of Mt Hood in Warm Springs, burning over 118,000 acres; the signal of the new norm of fire season we now know. The other significant memory of 1996 was the 100 year flood, the one no one ever talked about, until it happened. And it wasn’t just the Willamette River or Portland- it happened across the upper west coast, with an estimated 3000 people displaced from their homes. 

As a youth in this community, I learned the stories of the 1948 Vanport floods that happened late May from a fast melting snow pack. The 1996 floods took place in January after an intense rainy season, followed by a warm tropical jet stream that quickly melted the snow pack and saturated the earth with force. This is when I learned that the Willamette River was/is not a single channel river that I knew downtown, but really a braid of rivers that jump banks and carve landscapes. And that is why we should never turn our backs on the river, figuratively or physically. 

Water is powerful. Its power has been harnessed by hydroelectric dams and vaste irrigation networks. Its shores are the places where wealth is accumulated. It’s also been a power disrespected, evident in the historic and current industrial practices that take advantage of the river’s power. Yet, the river possesses its own inherent power, including the power of memory (returning to its braided form) and the power of life (fishing, plants, animals, etc) and the power to take life. The power to define its own shape, course and surrounding landscapes. 

In this memory, of 1996, I witnessed the power of a river surging, but bringing people together to help hold the banks of Portland up against the Willamette, for a few days. My dad was one of those volunteers who hopped on the bus to help sandbag the sea walls of Portland. Pieces of his story I recall: he lost his wallet with his bus fare while shoveling but the bus driver gave him a ride home anyways. A local upscale restaurant donated clam chowder to the volunteers. Random people came from all over, learning to work together. The river was just a few inches from jumping that sandbagged seawall. 

I remember wondering if the river was going to spill all over Portland. I recalled the photos I saw as a child of those escaping the Vanport floods and feel like those images, along with memories of Mt. St. Helens erupting, forever shape my perspectives on what it means to be in community during extreme events. What it means to be in commune with the land, sky, and waterways that shape our region. To respect the river’s cycles of change as what makes this place what it is. To be there for the community in time of need. 

These memories of 1996, I share with you dear Portlanders, in hopes you will face and embrace this powerful river for what it is, what it has been and what it could be, if only we can work together.

A few of those working together for the Willamette River and Portland Harbor Superfund: https://www.braidedrivercampaignpdx.org/ 




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