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Laura Ann Howard, left, and Muyoka Mwarabu pose with envelopes, each containing a $1,000 check and a $25 gift card to Portland Sweet Jam during a screening of “The Wake of Vanport” Sept. 29. Howard and Mwarabu were the winners of an essay contest on the lessons of Vanport. Their essays appear on page 2 of this issue. Photo by Jerry Foster.
By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 05 October 2017

Two Portland women received $1,000 each and $25 gift certificates to Portland Sweet Jam restaurant on Sept. 29 at the latest screening of “The Wake of Vanport,” The Skanner Foundation’s series of short films interviewing survivors of 1948’s Vanport flood. The event and the contest were both sponsored by the Oregon Lottery.

The collection of short films screened is the second collection created since “The Wake of Vanport” began. Bernie Foster, publisher of The Skanner News, told the crowd he expects to add more films to the series next year.

Laura Ann Howard and Muyoka Mwarabu, whose essays appear in this week’s edition of The Skanner, were the winners of an essay contest on the lessons of Vanport.

Howard reflected on her experiences as a Vanport survivor; Mwarabu wrote about discovering the Vanport story as an adult, after learning nothing about Black history in her Oregon history classes growing up. 

 “The idea is to get young people involved so it doesn’t die,” Foster said.

“Vanport was so much more than just a flood,” said Zita Podany, author of Images of America: Vanport.

She said the temporary city was the largest public housing project in the United States, created to house the influx of workers who moved to the Portland metro area to work in shipyards during World War II. That emigration also included the first large influx of African American residents to Oregon, and while city blocks in Vanport were segregated, public facilities – such as schools, childcare centers and businesses – were not. In Portland, on the other hand, many businesses were segregated.

Originally, she said, the town was colloquially referred to as Kaiserville, in honor of its founder, Henry J. Kaiser. But state law prevented Oregon cities from being named after living people, so the name was changed to Vanport, a portmanteau of Vancouver and Portland.

The community boasted 9,942 housing units, as well as a post office, an administration building and public facilities like grocery stores, movie theaters and roller rinks.

“It was supposed to be temporary. It was going to be taken down after the war’s end,” Podany said, but due to a massive housing shortage, many residents stayed. After the war they were joined by Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in internment camps.

At the time of the flood, there were 18,000 residents registered as living in Vanport – down from 40,000 during the war years -- although there is no way of knowing how many were present when the dam broke, she said. She added that due to a combination of heavy snow pack that winter and an unusually warm spring, areas throughout the Columbia River Basin – including Washington and Idaho – flooded that weekend.

On Saturday, May 29, 1948, the Red Cross and the Housing Authority of Portland met to decide whether to evacuate Vanport. Other sections of the Portland metropolitan area had already been evacuated, but the Red Cross said they could only find temporary lodging for 6,000 people and never came to a decision.

The two entities decided to table the decision until Monday. On Sunday, the dike broke.

“Whenever there’s a disaster like that, it tends to pull out people to be very helpful,” Podany said.

Vanport survivor June Reinan took the stage after Podany. Reinan, whose name was June Walker during the years she lived in Vanport, lived in the Vanport project when she was a single mother struggling to support two little boys. She was able to relocate her children to a family member’s house in Portland, but decided to go back. A man on a boat helped her get back into her house to retrieve a watch.



Later, Reinan said, she moved into another government-subsidized housing project and became close friends – “like family” – with a woman living next door. The neighbor went on to introduce Reinan to her brother, whom Reinan subsequently married.

“Then we really were family,” she said.

James Arcenaux, who just moved back to Portland after a long stint in Las Vegas, told the crowd that when he was nine years old, he had to give up his bedroom to make room for someone who had evacuated for the flood. He was reluctant, and also said he thought he was the only person who had to do it, but later met others who had hosted Vanport evacuees.

“When you do something for somebody else, it all comes back to you,” Arcenaux said.

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