Monday, October 12, 2009

The New Vanport Flood

For interest's sake. Below is a piece I wrote back in 2006:

All that summer our neighborhood echoed with the sound of trucks. West of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and north of the Alameda Ridge, cranes were pulling down buildings; bulldozers tore out foundations and filled in basements. Dump trucks rumbled along all the major eastbound streets, carting salvaged building materials, utility poles, and giant coils of wire to the temporary housing camps that were springing up on high ground in Gresham and Troutdale. Other trucks carried rubble and fill away to the new dikes that were rising along the Willamette and Columbia.

Downtown would be saved, but the neighborhoods of North Portland were being sacrificed. Most of the families were gone already, either to the refugee camps in the East County or to relatives elsewhere in the country. Still, every day I saw groups of people clutching bundles of belongings, stumbling along the sidewalk, dazed and dislocated. It was like the aftermath of a disaster, before the disaster itself.

Meanwhile, as if to mock us, the Willamette lay shrunken between its banks in the sweltering summer heat. Drought gripped the Northwest; fires raged in the Cascade forests, smudging the sky to the east even as cement dust plumed up to the west.

One evening, driving along the bluffs above Swan Island, I looked up and felt my heart stop: The St. Johns Bridge was being dismantled. The massive suspension cables were gone already, the graceful steel towers were being torn apart—next, I guessed, they would tear up the solid piers that supported the towers. Iron and stone, too valuable to lose to the hungry waters.

Dry weather lingered into the fall. As the Southern Hemisphere heated up, an uneasy quiet settled over the city. The north quarter (Portland had had five quarters, once upon a time) had been levelled, and only dust clouds moved over the desolate rubble. Even the rats had forsaken the area for better cover and feeding grounds. Seawalls built from the wreckage of Kenton and Portsmouth homes and Interstate Avenue businesses snaked along the banks of the river downtown, diverging to protect the endpoints of the Broadway Bridge, then widening out to meet the 200-foot contour line.

The Antarctic ice cap melted and flew apart in chunks. Satellite images limned rapidly melting areas in angry red; the South Pole looked like a drunkard’s eyeball, bloodshot and rimmed with crimson. (The Arctic ice had been gradually thinning for many years, like a cataract forming in reverse.) Giant icebergs steamed away north, with icy rivers cascading down their flanks.

There was no fanfare. Silently and stealthily, the river rose, reclaiming its winter dimensions and then expanding over its banks. One morning I looked out from the bottom of Prescott Street, west across the rubbly flats, and saw it: water, gleaming darkly in the distance. It was salt, or at least brackish; it was the new mouth of the Willamette. The ocean had risen high enough to swallow the Willamette/Columbia confluence—Sauvie Island was underwater—the Willamette was no longer a tributary but a river in her own right. Everything downstream was now a vast estuary framed by new wetlands that had once been part of the Coast Range.

Portland is a busy saltwater port these days. The new coastline is too steep for good harborage, and forests of skeletal treetops line the shallows. US 101 is long gone, the new coastal towns reachable only from the interior, by old passes over the Coast Range from I-5. So it’s here they come to load and unload, the giant deep-water freighters. Their wakes lash the dead beaches west of Martin Luther King, at the feet of Prescott, Alberta, Killingsworth.

North Portland is gone, gone. It’s the Vanport flood come again, but this time it’s forever.

Here's the same piece, cut down to 350 words for the 350 Words page. The original was 600+.

All summer our neighborhood echoed with trucks. West of MLK, north of the Alameda Ridge, cranes pulled down buildings; bulldozers filled basements and foundations. Dump trucks rumbled away, carting rubble and fill, salvaged building materials, utility poles, giant wire coils. Seawalls built from wreckage of Kenton and Portsmouth homes and Interstate Avenue businesses snaked south, diverging to protect the Broadway Bridge, then out to the 200-foot contour.

Downtown would be saved; North Portland neighborhoods, sacrificed. Most families were gone already, to East County refugee camps or relatives inland. Yet every day, groups of dislocated people stumbled along the sidewalk, clutching bundles of belongings as though a disaster had already happened.

From the bluffs above Swan Island, I looked up and felt my heart stop. The St. Johns Bridge was gone. The graceful suspension cables and steel towers were just a memory against the sky. Even the massive piers were being uprooted.

Drought gripped Oregon; fires ravaged the Cascades, streaking the sky as cement dust darkened the air. The Willamette lay shrunken in sweltering summer heat. Uneasy quiet settled over Portland's leveled north quarter. Only dust stirred above desolate rubble, forsaken even by rats.

The Arctic ice had thinned to nothing, like a cataract in reverse. As fall heated the Southern Hemisphere, satellite images limned rapidly melting areas in red, turning the Antarctic into a drunkard’s blood-rimmed eyeball. Giant icebergs steamed north, sweating icy rivers.

With no fanfare the river rose, drowning its winter banks. From the bottom of Prescott Street, I looked west across rubbly flats and saw distant water gleaming. It was salt. The ocean had swallowed the confluence-- Sauvie Island was underwater-- the Willamette was no longer a tributary, but a river. Downstream was a vast estuary framed by wetlands that had been part of the Coast Range.

Portland is a saltwater port now. Treacherous forests of skeletal treetops line new coastlines. US 101 is long gone, coastal towns reachable only by passes west from I-5. Wakes of giant deep-water freighters lash dead beaches west of MLK.

North Portland is gone. It’s the Vanport flood, again and forever.

It amazes me how much I was able to cut without sacrificing anything I thought was really important. Not to say the piece is unchanged: the short version has a much different texture, it's less expressive, it's a bit rough and abrupt in places.

1 comment:

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I find that you can smooth out those rough edges with a smarmy joke or acerbic witticism. Look at any of my articles where I call someone something particularly racist, sexist, or just derogatory in whatever manner, and I'm usually trying to close one topic and open another without really bringing closure or segue in either case.

The acerbic thing is *my* way, you could use whatever you wanted - twisted irony, backhanded insults covered with a joke, or cynical observations. What I'm trying to say is that I run into this problem more times than I care to admit in my writing, and if I let it sit for a few weeks without that "perfect" bridge coming to me, I'll make one with my biting humor.

You have many other gifts and talents at your disposal than I do, you'll think of something, I'm sure.