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'I'd never covered anything like that' Janie Nafsinger says.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Downtown Tualatin lies underwater in February 1996, after a devestating series of ice and rain caused serious flooding across the Portland area.On a sunny Friday in 1996, Janie Nafsinger stood on the new bank of the Tualatin River and surveyed the damage.

Water was everywhere. As far as she could see, the calm, quiet mucky water of the Tualatin River stretched on before her. Buildings rose from the water like islands in what had once been downtown Tualatin.

A day earlier, the river had overcome its banks, spilling into Tigard and Tualatin, flooding the area in one of the greatest natural disasters to hit the Portland area in decades.

Nafsinger was a reporter with the Tualatin Times in 1996.

Nafsinger and photographer Joyce Ingram were trying to document the flood’s damage, but found most of the city’s interior impassable due to high water. As they watched, a man in a boat motored past, cruising down what had once been Boones Ferry Road.

“Hey, hey!” she called to him. “We’re from the Tualatin Times! Can we ride around with you?”

“We got in the boat and went down Boones Ferry,” Nafsinger told The Times this week. “We were passing where Rich’s Kitchen used to be in downtown Tualatin (18810 S.W. Boones Ferry Road) and were at eye-level with the stop signs. It was really odd to be floating so peacefully, like we were on some kind of float trip.”

The water was a mucky chocolate color and everything was quiet. Despite the devastation, two decades later, Nafsinger remembers the tranquility of it.

“It looked like a lake,” Nafsinger said. “Lake Oswego had these big dramatic photos and looked like a raging river, but this was very placid and peaceful. The weather was actually beautiful after the flood. It was gorgeous, except that all that property was trashed.”

Follow the story

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

A veteran reporter, Nafsinger has spent her career covering the Portland area, but she’d never seen anything like this.

“It was just a mess,” said Nafsinger, who still works for The Times’ parent company, Pamplin Media Group.

For days, downtown Tualatin lay underneath several feet of water. At Cook Park, in Tigard, the water rose 20 feet high and enveloped everything in sight.

Images of the destruction were broadcast on nationwide, and President Bill Clinton and Gov. John Kitzhaber made stops in the Portland area to survey the damage.

‘It came up so fast’

The flood of 1996 was the culmination of a series of whacky weather patterns that struck the area in quick succession. Two months earlier, in December 1995, the Portland area was rocked by a devastating wind storm that blew roofs off buildings and snapped trees in half.

A few weeks later in January, a snow and ice front swept through the area closing schools, and that was followed by heavy rain.

“It was the winter of weird weather, let me tell you,” Nafsinger said.

But the rain didn’t stop, she said.

When The Times went to press on Wednesday, Feb. 7, the top story in Tigard that week was about a series of small localized floods, with more rain on the way.

“That’s when things went really kooky,” she said.

Stories in the Tualatin Times and Tigard Times from that time report how quickly the waters rose. Many residents were caught completely unprepared.

“It came up so fast,” Nafsinger said.

The storm and flooding affected everyone. Although only portions of Tigard and Tualatin were underwater, geysers were reported spewing from storm drains across the area. On Southwest Benchview Terrace on Bull Mountain, a home slid off its foundation and forced an evacuation.

Washington County crews tried to keep track of the number of roads that were closed due to flooding, but stopped counting at 200.

Cook Park’s dock on the Tualatin River came unmoored and was found standing vertically in the middle of the river after the storm subsided. Bleachers from soccer fields at the park were carried a football field’s length away and smashed into play equipment. A junkyard in Sherwood near the river flooded, sending car fluids, tires and other items downstream. Car parts were found weeks later.

Public works crews across the region worked around the clock to combat the flooding, Nafsinger said.

Residents came together to show their support. Durham resident Bill Gilham got into his motor boat and floated to Tualatin, where he helped people move out of apartments near the south edge of the river.

‘We wanted to be here’

In a lifetime in the news business, Nafsinger said the Flood of ‘96 remains a unique experience.

“I’d never covered anything like that, and I haven’t since,” she said. “We don’t have major events like that, not around here. For the Tualatin River to flood like that, it’s incredible.”

The flood waters receded after a few days, but for weeks afterward, Nafsinger said, the story was the same: How will the community rebuild?

“You could see the damage everywhere,” said Mike Lucas, who worked as a Tigard reporter with The Times in 1996. “After the flood, we walked around Tualatin and there were swirls of mud and dirt and mulch from landscaping everywhere. There was this dried film on the homes and businesses from the high water. People had their garage doors open airing everything out.”

Lucas, who now lives in Bordentown, N.J., still works for the paper, providing The Times’ weekly political cartoons.

“(Ingram) and I came across a couple in some apartments on Boones Ferry. Their apartment was just destroyed,” Nafsinger remembered. “I felt so bad for them. They lost everything. They took us in and we walked on their squishy carpet.”

The furniture was destroyed, Nafsinger said, and their electronics were ruined. They had done what they could to move things up out of the way, but it hadn’t been enough.

“They had tried to stop the water by putting up bookcases, but it came through and trashed the place,” she said. “They were this nice middle-aged couple. She’d been crying a lot, you could tell, and he kept saying that nobody cares about poor people, what were they going to do? I took out my notebook and started scribbling names and organizations for them to call.

“I was telling them, ‘Call this number. Call that number. Call FEMA. Call the city,” Nafsinger said. “They didn’t think anybody was going to help them. There was a man who lived upstairs, he didn’t lose a Kleenex, but those guys lost everything.”

For 13 days straight, reporters from The Times covered the flood and its damage. Nafsinger said she doesn’t regret a moment of it.

“Nobody had to tell us to come in,” Nafsinger said. “We wanted to be here to see what was happening. We just understood that we needed to keep following what was happening, every day. We kept coming in, knowing that something was going on and that we might be missing something.”

By Geoff Pursinger
Assistant Editor, The Times
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