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FILE - Downtown Tualatin was swamped in February 1996 by high water as the Tualatin River crested to record levels.“It’s hard to imagine it’s 20 years ago,” Steve Wheeler remarked. “Seems fresher than that.”


A lot of Tualatin-area residents and others who remember the Flood of 1996 feel the same way.

Wheeler had just accepted a job offer to become Tualatin’s city manager when a perfect storm of sorts brought the Tualatin River to record high levels and sent high water rolling through much of downtown Tualatin and parts of neighboring Durham, Tigard and West Linn.

Wild weather conditions led to the flood, recalled Dan Boss, who was Tualatin’s operations director at the time. The city had just declared a state of emergency in December 1995, in the aftermath of a windstorm that month.

“We were still dealing with that when in January, we had snow and ice and freezing temperatures ... and then we got a Pineapple Express the first part of February,” said Boss, using a colloquial term for a storm system of wet, warm air originating near Hawaii.

Between the heavy rains, huge amounts of snow and ice melting in the Coast Range and frozen ground that could not absorb much moisture, conditions were primed for “the flood of record,” as Boss calls it.

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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

Boss remembers getting regular updates from the Northwest River Forecast Center in Portland. They knew a flood was coming — but even as they made preparations, handed out sandbags and advised residents of what was coming, he recalled, the projections for how high the river would rise kept getting worse and worse.

“About every six hours, they’d keep raising the number on us,” Boss said.

By the night of Feb. 8, a Thursday, the river was rising rapidly in Tualatin. Boss said he went out to Southwest Boones Ferry Road on the northern edge of Tualatin’s downtown area to observe the river that night.

“You could literally see the water as it kept creeping up Boones Ferry,” he said.

Attempts to fight the flood were futile. The city of Tualatin gave out about 20,000 sandbags, Boss said, but as the flood forecast steadily worsened, many residents in low-lying areas decided to pack up what they could and get out.

Others, perhaps underestimating the extent of the flood, chose differently.

“There were a number of people who lost a lot of their stuff,” Boss said.

FILE - An aerial view shows much of Tualatin swimming in muddy brown water in February 1996, two decades ago next week.Loyce Martinazzi remembers helping out at the historic Winona Grange in downtown Tualatin. The grange hall’s basement filled up with about four feet of water, she said. Floodwaters also overwhelmed the sewer system, meaning volunteers and workers had to clean everything with bleach, she recalled.

“Everything was destroyed in the grange hall: the water heater, the furnace, the stove,” she said. “It was really terrible.”

Some downtown streets were under as much as eight or nine feet of water, Boss said. After a few motorists tried to navigate the flooded roads, the city shut them down. Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road, a major route linking Tualatin with neighboring Sherwood to the west, was closed for several days, causing major backups on Interstate 5, Boss remembered.

Lew Scholl, a flood hydrologist living in Tualatin in 1996, chartered a plane to document the damage.

“It was pretty dramatic,” he said.

Just like in previous floods, people brought out their rowboats in order to get around the flooded sections of town.

Scholl took a canoe out order to drop off a newspaper at a friend’s home, and made trips through town to check on friends’ offices.

“A neighbor of mine worked downtown and was worried about his files getting damaged. We took the canoe and went to his office,” he recalled. “The floor was still dry, but the water was coming up.”

After salvaging the documents, the group headed for shore.

“I was taking pictures when this helicopter flew by overhead,” Scholl said. “My neighbor waved and made a great big wave that sent us all into the water. The only dry ground was the top two inches of a car that was next to us. We all stood on the car and emptied as much water out of the canoe as we could.”

FILE - High water closed roads throughout the Tualatin area and beyond as the Tualatin River reached record heights in February 1996.Brian Wegener was a substitute teacher at Tualatin High School in 1996.

“The principal came in and said he got passed by a jet ski on his way in that morning,” Wegener recalled.

The river crested on Feb. 9, reaching a height of 126.3 feet above sea level. For reference, that’s more than 10 feet above the high-water mark in Tualatin on Dec. 13, 2015, when high water on the Tualatin River flooded some low-lying parks, roadways and parking lots. It’s also more than two feet above the 100-year floodplain, meaning that some buildings which were thought to be safe from the type of floods expected in Tualatin about once per century flooded anyway.

“Nobody had ever seen that,” Boss said. “No European had ever seen that in the Tualatin Valley.”

Boss, Martinazzi and Wheeler remember with some pride how their community came together in the days after the flood. Boss served as incident commander, while Wheeler came into work early the following weekend to get oriented and learn as much as he could before officially starting as city manager on Feb. 20.

“I had to get my feet wet ... literally,” Wheeler explained.

Everyone was pitching in. Boss even remembers a city councilor making sandwiches for Boss and his staff at Tualatin’s emergency operations center one day.

“During the 1996 flood, I remember people coming around ... and they would help to clean up, because it was just a horrible mess,” said Martinazzi.

FILE - Markers were placed to show just how high the Tualatin River reached in February 1996. The Tualatin Times reported at the time the river crested to 126.3 feet above sea level in Tualatin, a record height.Some city employees turned in 18-hour workdays as Tualatin dug out from the flood, Boss said. The city also deployed drop boxes and heavy equipment in the cleanup effort.

“As an emergency action, we took all the debris — public and private,” he said.

Boss recounted a proactive effort by the city to assist residents and business owners, some of them shellshocked by the extent of their property damage. He said city staff collected ruined furniture, mattresses, sheetrock, insulation, flooring, and other objects and materials that had been soaked by the high water and were beyond saving, putting them into the drop boxes and hauling them off for disposal.

“It looked like an ant colony in downtown Tualatin by Monday from the flood,” he chuckled.

Bill Clinton, then president of the United States, visited Portland to survey the damage. For a few days that February, the eyes of the nation were on the Portland area — including Tualatin, where Boss recalls seeing broadcast vans from CNN and NBC News.

According to Boss, an advance team from the White House came to Tualatin and met with Boss and other members of the city staff, preparing for a possible presidential visit to the suburban city. He said he remembers one of them looking around and asking where the flood had been. Tualatin had cleaned up so quickly, Boss claimed, that the White House decided it wasn’t a good enough photo opportunity for the president.

Clinton ended up visiting Woodland, Wash., instead, although Boss said the president did meet with Lou Ogden, then in his first term as Tualatin’s mayor. (Ogden did not return a call for comment before press time.)

Between the cleanup, reconstruction of flooded buildings, and securing state and federal assistance with paying for damages, it took some time for Tualatin to fully recover from the flood, Wheeler said.

“We were probably working on the aftermath of that for well over a year,” he said.

“I still feel really good about the city’s response and the community’s response,” said Boss. “We had volunteers from out of state, even, who saw us on TV and came here to help.”

As it turned out, Tualatin flooded again less than a year after the February 1996 event. Flooding the next January wasn’t nearly as extensive, Boss said — but residents who had shrugged off the forecasts from last time were far more prepared.

Wheeler served as city manager until 2006. Boss finally retired from the city in 2012.

The Flood of 1996 wasn’t the first time the Tualatin River breached downtown Tualatin, and it won’t be the last. Previous floods in 1892, 1937, 1948 and 1977 also disrupted life in the community, although none was as extreme as the 1996 flood.

FILE - Vehicles were submerged by floodwaters in February 1996, as the Tualatin River rose rapidly between Durham, Tigard and Tualatin. Water also caused significant property damage to buildings, including some situated above the 100-year floodplain.

Geoff Pursinger contributed to this story.

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