On the afternoon of May 30, 1948, Oregon’s second-largest city was destroyed in hours by floodwaters from the Columbia River. The tragedy destroyed the 700-family parish community of St. Catherine of Siena and 18,000 people’s homes 18,000 in Vanport City.

During the flood, waters from the river punched through several hundred feet of the railroad dike, filled the complex built on a floodplain to house workers from Henry Kaiser’s shipyards during World War II.

Approximately 40,000 low-income, black and immigrant workers came from around the country to the mostly-white city to work. After the war ended, more than half of the people stayed.

Established during World War II by Archbishop Edward Howard, St. Catherine’s mission had no physical church building. Catholics gathered for Sunday Masses in the Vanport recreation building gymnasium. Sisters of St. Francis stationed at Blessed Sacrament Parish (closed in the late 1990s) traveled to Vanport City on Saturdays to teach catechism classes to more than 100 children. 

University of Portland was in the middle of its graduation ceremony when then- University president, Holy Cross Father Theodore Mehling, announced to the crowd that Vanport had flooded. Several graduates and commencement guests lived in the flooded city.

Many lives were spared because many residents had left town for the holiday weekend. Even so, public agencies were harshly criticized for downplaying the danger the rising Columbia River posed to the people who lived in Vanport, where areas sit 15 feet below sea level.

The morning of May 30, the Housing Authority and Corps of Engineers distributed flyers that said, “Dikes are safe at present. You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.”

That afternoon, water pushed through the dike. Most of the housing in Vanport were hastily constructed apartment complexes. As the water poured into the complex, emergency sirens blared as residents grabbed what they could of their belongings and tried to flee. The few roads out were gridlocked.

Of the structures that were not completely destroyed, first floor apartments were almost completely submerged. 
Officials reported 15 deaths.

After the disaster, Catholic Charities of Portland and several other Catholic institutions coordinated with the Red Cross to care for people impacted by the flood. The Sunday evening immediately after the disaster, Archbishop Howard turned over all North Portland parochial schools and other Archdiocese of Portland facilities to Red Cross officials for use as emergency shelters, reported a 1948 issue of the Catholic Sentinel, published the Tuesday after the disaster.

“Major calamities like the destruction of Vanport do immeasurable damage; at the same time, they often serve to bring out what is best in man himself. The mighty stream of charity, good will, desire to be of assistance, to help those in need, which overflowed the dike of often stern and cold personalities was profoundly gratifying,” said an editorial published in that early June issue. “It is another illustration that whatever other faults they have, our American people are full of human sympathy, easily aroused to charity and generous to the extreme.”

Today, a racetrack and golf course stand where there were once schools, homes, businesses and shops.