The future Gloria Safranski (left) poses with her sister in Vanport in the 1940s. (Courtesy Dick Safranski)
The future Gloria Safranski (left) poses with her sister in Vanport in the 1940s. (Courtesy Dick Safranski)
On May 29, 1948, a teenage Dick Safranski and his pals from Assumption Parish rushed to the dikes along the swollen Columbia River. They hefted sandbags into a wall, protecting their North Portland neighborhood from floodwaters.

Safranski’s home across from Roosevelt High School stayed dry. But a dike upriver gave way the next day, wiping out Vanport, a town northeast of St. Johns that was home to 20,000 souls, mostly shipyard workers and their families. Officially, 15 people died in the Vanport flood. Safranski figures many more perished — the unknown elderly, unregistered visitors.

Vanport had been constructed hastily in 1942. After World War II, it became a low-income district, with a population that was about a third African American families.

Safranski’s future wife, Gloria, lived in Vanport with her parents. There was a Catholic community in the town, with Mass held in a community hall. Officials considered building a church for what was one of Oregon’s largest cities at the time. Gloria, whose family had come from Minnesota, received first Communion and was confirmed at Vanport.

It had been a wet winter and spring in 1948, even by Oregon standards. A warm, rainy May melted mountain snowpack and rivers swelled. In less than an hour, a great surge washed the detritus of Vanport toward the Pacific.

Gloria’s family escaped just in the nick of time, water swirling around the wheels of their flatbed truck. The day before water breached the dike, officials had told Vanport residents that the barriers looked safe and that no one should panic. On the afternoon of May 30, a warning came only 90 minutes before the town was inundated.

“There were houses floating, cars upturned, pieces of houses all over,” Safranski said.

A Boy Scout troop from Holy Redeemer Parish stepped up to help the Red Cross with flood relief. Some of the boys worked 16-hour shifts to help get displaced families settled. Among the scouts was Richard Schiblin, who would be ordained a Redemptorist priest and return as pastor of Holy Redeemer in the 1990s.

Gloria, 13 at the time of the flood, moved with family into the St. John’s Woods district of North Portland, along with many other Vanport refugees. Portland’s Albina district also saw a surge. Gloria met Safranski after the flood and the pair were married at Holy Redeemer Church in 1951.

After a stint in Korea with the U.S. Army, where his best friend was killed in combat, Safranski went to business college. He joined a paper box manufacturer as one of five employees. He became owner and Rose City Paper Box grew to employ 155 workers.

Gloria, who had lifelong occasional nightmares about the Vanport flood, died six years ago.

Safranski, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish who wears a sizable crucifix blessed by Pope Francis, is gregarious and well known in North Portland. Over the years, he spoke often with flood survivors, but few are left.

The land that once was Vanport is now a park, golf course and an auto race track.