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1948 Yakima, Columbia River Flood Did $50 Million in Damages

Yakima River Flooding, modern times (Benton County Emergency Services)
Yakima River Flooding, modern times (Benton County Emergency Services)

The history of the Yakima River flooding spans many decades, but the 1948 flood that included the Columbia River was one of the biggest. This picture is from 6-7 years ago, from Benton County Emergency Services.

According to various historical sources, including historylink.org, in 1876 and 1894 the Yakima and Columbia had more actual cubic feet of water streaming through the countryside. But the 1948 flood was one of the most economically damaging.

Due to excessive snowpack, and then rapid melt off in May, torrents of water began to roll down the river. Ellensburg and Cle Elum tried using dikes to hold back the water, as did Yakima, but the water was rising a foot every four hours.

The Yakima and Columbia combined to flood most of what is now Columbia Park, and according to the Tri-City Herald and historical reports, over 1,000 families had to be evacuated from low-lying areas. But it wasn’t just the Tri-Cities. The Columbia would later go on to completely destroy the town of Vanport, and in Clark County and other areas near Vancouver, some 46,000 people lost their homes. Never heart of Vanport? It’s because it was swept away and never rebuilt.

And ice dam on the Yakima River Railroad bridge added to the issues of water having difficulty getting through. This was before McNary Dam was built, and before the dikes were built along the Richland shoreline. Few dams along the river allowed the Yakima and Columbia to run their course over the low lying lands.

According to historylink.org, the 1948 flooding caused $50 million in damages, considerable considering those were dollar values from nearly 70 years ago. In today’s value, that would equate to $515 million in damages!

The flood did kill one person, a 19-year-old worker in a Kennewick business who came in contact with a broken live electrical circuit while he was standing in water.

Since then, there have been some epic floods, including some YouTube footage of 2009 and 2011.  Annually, especially when there’s a lot of snow in the mountains, we go through the early spring phase of watching the Yakima to see if or when it will hit flood stage, about 13 feet.  It’s expected to be very close this weekend and in the coming days.

But we will probably go many years before we ever see events like the Tri-Cities did in 1948.

Yakima River Flooding 2011

Yakima River Flooding 2009

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