The independent. (Vernonia, Or.) 1986-current, December 03, 2009, Page Page 8, Image 8

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    Page 8
The INDEPENDENT, December 3, 2009
Vernonia: Rising Over Adversity wins in state writing competition
From page 7
logged, the accessible supply
of old growth trees was greatly
diminished. All mill operations
ceased in 1957 and it seemed
that Vernonia was about to be-
come a ghost town.
The population declined
drastically, but many residents
decided to stay and do some-
thing to help keep the commu-
nity spirit alive. They decided
on a celebration, the Vernonia
Friendship Jamboree, which
was held annually to invite for-
mer residents and others to vis-
it this beautiful, peaceful and
friendly community. People
came to Vernonia for the first
Jamboree in 1957, and to sub-
sequent Jamboree celebra-
tions. While many visitors love
the area, no new industry has
ever produced the jobs and in-
come that the mill created.
Though still the economic
mainstay, jobs in the timber in-
dustry were gradually declining,
partly because of mechaniza-
tion and partly because of
changing markets.
By the mid-1980s the popu-
lation had dwindled to around
1600. Then, in the next few
years, a fairly steady increase
was realized as the electronic
industry in nearby Washington
County brought new residents.
Logging companies were still
providing employment for truck-
ers and loggers, and a consid-
erable number of retired citi-
zens continued to make Ver-
nonia their home. Local busi-
nesses came and went, with
those remaining continuing to
provide regular employment for
some residents. The schools
were again seeing increases in
enrollment, while the newly
opened Banks-Vernonia Linear
Trail and the city’s newly im-
proved parks were drawing
“outsiders” to this lovely “pock-
et in the woods”.
Just as it appeared that the
blessing of her beautiful site on
the banks of Rock Creek and
the Nehalem River might signi-
fy a new beginning for Vernon-
ia, she was cursed by that
same location and weather
conditions beyond anyone’s
control. February, 1996, had
brought deeply cold weather
causing the ground to freeze.
This was coupled with several
feet of snow that could not be
absorbed into the earth when
warm rains came, causing ex-
tensive flooding in Vernonia
and the surrounding Nehalem
River Valley. In the early morn-
ing of February 8th, police were
warning residents to evacuate
from low-lying areas, but
many long-time residents had
seen flooding over the years
and considered it unnecessary;
others thought they were high
enough or far enough away to
be safe. They were wrong.
Massive flooding from Rock
Creek and the Nehalem River
split Vernonia into three areas.
The high school and senior
center, many downtown busi-
nesses including the post office
and electric cooperative, as
well as many, many homes
were flooded. Stranded people
were rescued by helicopter, pri-
vately owned boats, and large
trucks. Washington Grade
School was an evacuation cen-
ter, fire and medical personnel
were ready to handle emergen-
cies, a public works employee
worked around the clock in the
water plant to prevent pollution
and maintain clean water, vol-
unteers worked to keep phone
communications open and,
when that failed, ham radio op-
erators maintained communi-
cations around the clock.
No lives were lost and, on
the morning of February 9,
most of the water was back in
the rivers and streams, and the
sun was shining. With mud
slides closing roads and
stranding people throughout
Vernonia and the Nehalem Val-
ley, volunteers organized emer-
gency centers providing food,
clothing and other necessities
such as cleaning supplies and
rubber boots. (Rubber boots
were the fashion statement for
weeks.) Volunteers helped at
the local grocery store (which
also was flooded) with some
cleaning and others filling lists
of needs such as diapers and
baby formula. With mud and
debris everywhere, citizens be-
gan to clean up the mess and
get on with their lives. During
the first days following the
flood, residents were busy sort-
ing through possessions to de-
termine what could be saved
and what was damaged be-
yond repair. Unsalvageable
items such as mattresses,
rugs, and furniture were soon
piled in yards. A dump site was
established for these items, as
well as for appliances and oth-
er household items. Although
the site was humorously nick-
named “Mt. Trashmore”, it was
sad beyond description to see
pile after pile of once prized
possessions now reduced to
rubble and hauled away. At the
same time, it was overwhelm-
ing to watch the community
come together to get through
this catastrophe.
With the exception of a few
homes that were elevated, few
changes took place. After all,
this was supposed to be a 500-
year flood and residents did not
anticipate a repeat of such dev-
astation in their lifetimes.
Vernonia recovered and
used the devastation as a stim-
ulus for many improvements,
making the town still more at-
tractive. Citizens continued to
enjoy the blessings of the
beautiful, tranquil area and
gave little thought to being
cursed again for living in this
“pocket of the woods”.
Nearly twelve years later, on
the evening of December 1,
2007, light rain fell as Vernonia
residents enjoyed the annual
lighted truck parade and light-
ing of the community Christmas
tree, as they prepared for the
upcoming holiday season. On
Sunday, December 2, rain be-
gan in earnest. More than 10
inches fell on Vernonia and the
surrounding area in the next
twenty-four hours. This brought
even more devastation than the
1996 catastrophe, with the high
school damaged beyond repair,
the middle school and Head
Start buildings both inundated
with muddy water, and ques-
tions being raised about the
safety of Washington Grade
School. Again, homes and
businesses were flooded with
muddy water. Both Vernonia
substations were flooded so
there was no electricity and,
without power, the public works
crew could not produce water,
which was becoming alarming-
ly low as residents were trying
to wash the mud from their
homes. When the electricity
was restored, the water, which
comes from Rock Creek, was
so turbid that it took several
days before clean water was
unconditionally flowing into
people’s homes. Again, a dump
site was established and,
again, residents were forced to
discard precious belongings. In
March, this same site became
the home of twenty-one
families residing in trailers pro-
vided by the Federal Emer-
gency Management Agency
Until mid-February, elemen-
tary students attended classes
in the Grange hall and local
churches; middle and high
school students rode buses
thirty miles to Scappoose,
where they attended classes
half days. Head Start students
attended class in the public li-
brary through the end of the
school year.
With this second catastroph-
ic flood came the realization
that Vernonia was at risk for fu-
ture flooding. The community
now knew that, if Vernonia was
going to survive, drastic meas-
ures would be needed for
schools, homes and business-
es to remain operable and safe
from the very real threat of fu-
ture flooding. Many homes
have been elevated above the
flood level; some businesses
are exploring ways to ensure
they will be resistant to flood-
ing; and a site high above the
flood plain has been chosen
with the hope that a new school
campus will soon be built there.
Options for controlling Rock
Creek and the Nehalem River
are being explored. River levels
are now being monitored and
an automated telephone sys-
tem is in place to warn resi-
dents of potential dangers from
flooding. The city and county
have worked diligently to im-
prove emergency plans for the
It is hard to imagine that
these bodies of water, in which
youngsters and adults swim,
See Vernonia on page 21
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