In Memoriam

How Portland Mayor Vera Katz Took on the Epic Flood of '96

The late politician was mighty in many ways.

By Carl Abbott January 30, 2018 Published in the February 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Trouble started on February 6, 1996, when the warm rains of a Pineapple Express storm system poured onto frozen ground and mountain snows. Rain and snowmelt surged into the Willamette River.

Vera Katz was a political powerhouse. A transplant to Portland, she entered politics volunteering for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968, and ended as a popular three-term mayor of Portland, with 20 years in the Oregon House of Representatives in between. But Katz’s signature moment came as the Willamette threatened to flood downtown Portland, as it had in 1894. On February 8, the two forces collided.

Water looked likely to top the seawall along Waterfront Park and inundate downtown as far west as Third Avenue. First-term Mayor Katz—all of 63.5 inches tall, in a purple raincoat—left city hall to encourage hundreds of rain-drenched volunteers schlepping sandbags that anchored a plywood and plastic barrier along the seawall. Katz told the emergency responders and volunteers that “we didn’t know this morning that we’d get the job done. Thank you. Thank you so much.” The wall held.

Katz died in December at 84. It’s fitting that her bronze likeness sits just across the water, along the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade.

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