The Vernonia Flood

by Terry Grosnick

We’ve read all too often of flooding around the world as well as here at home; so often in fact that we may simply glance through the story and move on to what is happening on the political front or who is playing who in the sport’s world. I want to share with you the story behind the story. The story of brave families that have come face to face with a flood disaster, after which perhaps some of you volunteered your time and your talents to help after the Vernonia flood of December 3, 2007.
That flood began occurring before 8:30 in the morning in Vernonia, Oregon, a rural but quaint lumber town situated in our own back yard about an hour and a half west of Portland with a population of 2,100. It’s the kind of rural community that we often search out on the weekends looking for just the right vase for Aunt Mary or that certain pocket knife for Uncle Fred. Quaint! Friendly! And Homey!
The Vernonia citizens are down-to-earth good people that help one another in times of need and attend church on Sundays just like you & I, but that flood was more than they could handle on their own. Especially since many of those same citizens had already been through the 500 year flood in 1996, and their pocket books were thin from putting their homes back together after that disaster.
The community was caught completely by surprise and swift moving currents made rescues especially difficult. The roads going in and out of town were closed and Vernonia became an island. They had no outside help for the first twenty-four hours since even the Air National Guard couldn’t fly that day because of weather conditions and didn’t arrive until the morning of December 4th. Outside agencies couldn’t reach them because the roads were closed. They only had each other to rely on. Because the flood waters became so deep, sometimes they couldn’t even get to their neighbors. It was just too dangerous.

This is where my story begins; the story behind the story.
Brother & Sister Scott Rice were one of those couples that put their home back together after the 1996 flood. They were only one of many families that survived that disaster a lot wiser and a lot more prepared. For them, by the time 2007 rolled around their family had increased to six.
The Rice’s watched the water flowing down Douglas Street like a water slide, almost pleasant as it inched its way to the pond across from their home. They were not concerned in the beginning however, because they had raised the foundation of their home in ’96 and thought all was well. As they watched though, the water quickly became deeper and deeper lapping at the tires of their vehicles and flowing into their garage. They all knelt for family prayer. What should they do? Their children became increasingly concerned and with the further depth of water they decided they had to leave in their own boat.
They planned to ride the boat up the street to the main highway west to get to higher ground. However, the propeller of the boat became entangled in the barbed-wire fencing from around the pond. It had been lifted from the ground by the force of the water. This family of six, along with two young people who came to rescue them in a much smaller boat, and the family cat in a box that yowled continually from fear found themselves stranded in deep water in the middle of their own street. The family prayed several times in the boat discerning what Heavenly Father wished for them to do.
There was so much debris in the water that kept crashing into the boat that it became an impossible situation. They called 911, not because they feared for their lives but because they were freezing in the cold and pouring December weather and their children were afraid and soaked to the skin. The heavy rains continued until the boat was raised above the wire fencing. This time they aimed the boat toward the mountainside at the east end of their street. As their boat moved away, they watched the flood waters move in and claim their home.
The family was able to clamor onto the hillside among the berry briers and the snow, making their way the distance of two blocks to their Branch President’s home & safety. A day or two later, they moved into an apartment over Scott’s brothers garage well away from the flood waters and the yellow muck & mud left behind as the flood waters receded.
Sister Rice had learned some important lessons from the previous flood. Everyone take note: Don’t keep any items in cardboard boxes. Their family items were kept in plastic tubs and picked up and put away every evening. This included cardboard laundry and dishwasher soaps. Everything was kept portable and contained.
Before they left their home they put everything they could up onto stationary counter tops and built-ins; not tables or other furnishings that the swiftness of the water could up-end. Even refrigerators are easily tipped over by the force of flood water.
Sister Rice always keeps their important papers & pictures where they can easily be grabbed & taken with them. When a church contractor came to help repair their home later, he built a ledge around the middle of the garage where power tools and expensive, irreplaceable, items could be safely stored. And, yes, their home foundation was once again raised.
Last winter while their oldest daughter was living in a basement apartment in Corvallis, she followed her mom’s instructions and kept all her possessions in plastic tubs. That became an invaluable piece of knowledge when her apartment flooded. Nearly all of Laura’s things were safe but her roommate, not followings Sister’s Rice’s advice, lost nearly everything.
The family now has a generator because the Vernonia Community often loses their electricity throughout the year. Her husband found one, on the internet, that needed repair. Being an engineer, he had it in working order in no time. Now their freezer food will always remain cold.
Once work began restoring the Rice home, Sister Rice was asked to go over to over and see what was happening there. When she arrived, there were about 25 men inside tearing out the floor before it could begin molding. There was a woman & her daughter that the family didn’t know that wiped down the front door & completely cleaned the bathroom. There were men everywhere outside picking up debris including the yellow shirts we all know and love and fellow workers at Intel and church members and many others that remain nameless.
Sister Rice hurried back home, returning with her four children so that they could see all the work that was being done on their home. She wanted them to know the generosity of people and that it was the love of the Lord that brought them to help out their family. This kind of service was going on all over Vernonia.
An elderly sister who lived right across the highway from the Nehalem River told me she watched the water come over the road and bring logs and log debris with it, bumping into her home’s foundation and front & back steps all night long. She had raised her house about 8’ after the 1996 flood. Yes, she was safe, but she talked about how frightening it was to feel & hear those sounds since she lived alone and was unable to get out of her house because of flooding.
Brother Bob Grosnick & Brother Keith Atchley checked on the flood waters at the corner of Hwy 47 and Scappoose-Vernonia Highway about 4 PM, December 3. They stayed well back as they watched debris, including a washing machine being swept over the bridge from the force of the raging waters.
Steven Perry and his family lived about 500 feet from the Vernonia church building. Equipped with a rain coat and fishing waders, every hour on the hour, Brother Perry forced his way through torrents of water to keep the church parking lot drains free of debris. Between his efforts and the grace of the Lord, their church building was spared any water damage.
Alison & Jerry Dinger had recently installed new flooring and new carpet on the main level of their home. That was ruined, of course, as were the floors and many items in their out-buildings. Their property, as well of their neighborhood, became a lake with houses planted here and there. They were able to live in their upstairs until the main level was cleaned and flooring replaced. It is impossible to realize how much sludge and smelly refuge a flood can leave in its trail.
Sister Gienah Cheney said later in a RS meeting, “I didn’t have enough chocolate when our basement flooded right up to the top step of the main floor.” Well, everyone laughed as you probably are doing right now, but when you are in the middle of a disaster it is the familiar that brings you peace and comfort. When the Cheney family were exhausted and emotionally spent, they would gather around one another and have a piece of chocolate heaven. Regroup! And go back to work. (Families should only store those foods that your loved ones will enjoy eating in times of crisis.)
Later, the Vernonia Branch Building was opened as a head-quarters to volunteer workers to gather and receive instruction as to where they were needed. The center was manned by the local Relief Society sisters. They also prepared lunches for those hungry volunteers and there were many workers over the weeks to come. The church storehouse brought one of the first trucks into town and made frequent deliveries of canned foods to be given out to the community.
Sister Tori Fallau, working at the local Senior Center, waited too long to drive the six blocks to her two-story town house where her son & daughter were at home alone. The flood waters came up to the bottom of the doors of her old pick-up truck. She abandoned it and pushed through on her own. The apartment was flooding when she arrived home so they gathered what they could, including their two cats and put everything on the second floor. With her six year old son between them, they managed to walk through waist-high water to a steep section of the main highway and to the safety of a friend’s home, even though raging & powerful flood waters were pouring over them the whole time.
A National Guard helicopter was able to rescue a community woman and her daughter when their jeep was swept into the Nehalem River. They were able to escape the vehicle and were standing on the roof top when they were found.
There were 17 church missionaries that came to the local Vernonia Cares Food Bank building, mucked it out and restored clean & sanitary order to a chaotic mess. All the foods that were stored there for the residents to choose from were destroyed, but once the missionaries cleaned out the building, donations replaced all that was lost and much more. To this day, you can still see the flood water marks on the double doors about 5’ off the floor. Did I mention the building has about a three foot foundation?
The Food Bank Board and many, many volunteers stepped up to put the building and food items right. Sandy Welch, the Food Bank’s manager was unable to be there in the beginning since her home had also flooded. Others willingly did their best to replace Sandy’s wonderful leadership. This was another time when the strength and courage of the community shined through.
It is important that I mention the 200 state prison inmates from the four correctional facilities that were able to serve Vernonia residents with clean up. I, for one, was working at the Vernonia Cares Food Bank while inmates were building shelving for all of the hundreds of pounds of food that was donated by those caring families from the Valley, Safeway Foods, Fred Meyer and many other businesses. With the inmates help, residents were able to push a grocery cart up and down shelved isles to take whatever their families could use. The inmates were happy to be helping and the Vernonian’s were happy to have their help.
The Cedar Ridge Retreat Center opened their doors to displaced residents needing a shower and a warm, dry bed. The Retreat kitchen staff fed people as did St. Mary’s Catholic Church. St. Mary’s shelter was overrun with 168 flood victims staying there. It had a capacity for 70.
As donations poured in, the old Lincoln Grade School, well up on a hillside, was opened to accept furniture, beds, and appliances in the basement level and clothing and dry goods on the main floor.
There was no phone service and no electrical power, leaving citizens in the dark, unable to reach out to their families for several days.
As the waters began to recede, rescue efforts were bolstered by the arrival of Air National Guard Troops who used inflatable rafts and high clearance vehicles to help evacuate residents.
Relief efforts began pouring into the community from everywhere. There were so many Portland-area businesses that assisted, they are too numerous to mention. Individuals & groups in outlying areas brought clothing, food, toys, furniture, and financial donations.
Another courageous woman of Vernonia was Dr. Phillis Gillmore. She was the only Vernonia Medical Physician. The Providence Clinic was built right on the banks of Rock Creek in the middle of town. She told me that her office chair was in her office in the very front of the building and when she went in after the flood it was clear in the back of the building. The force of water is an interesting phenomenon.
Providence brought in and set up yurt-like tents in the clinic parking lot. Dr. Gillmore would go from tent to tent seeing patients. There was an epidemic of pneumonia and skin/eye infections from all the septic tank sewerage and flood water & mud muck.
The local dentist’s office building, belonging to Brother Chris Scheuerman, was also along the banks of Rock Creek with severe flood damage. He was able to have a large dental van brought in to continue serving the community.
Before the flood, the grade, middle and high schools were on the main drag through town, Highway 47. Not any longer! Since the flood, a new building housing all grades has been built on higher ground. However, the museum and the fire & police departments can still be found at each end of town. All three buildings were built on high ground and unaffected by the flood.
The story of the 2007 Vernonia Flood could not be told without mentioning “Trash Mountain”. Daily trucks and cars would be lined up through town waiting to unload their flood garbage at a designated dump site. A back hoe was used to mound it into a “mountain” of trash, and then load it into dump trucks to be hauled away each day. Property owners were also allowed to leave their flood garbage at the end of their streets and it was picked up and hauled away.
With Christmas just around the corner, many, many donations were received in the form of presents for the children. It was a heart-warming Christmas for the Vernonia children and a welcome financial relief for the parents.
When it came close to Christmas and time for the branch Christmas dinner, the Stake members stepped in and supplied a sit-down dinner for the entire attending branch. Everyone was so exhausted from repairing their own homes or helping with other’s repairs that the idea of putting together a Christmas dinner was an unsurmountable thought. The stake will never know what a choice blessing they gave the Vernonia Branch members in preparing and serving that dinner.
Without schools to attend, the branch young men and young women worked diligently, helping the community muck out their houses and clearing the insulation, venting, and the aftermath of the flood from beneath homes. When it came time, in January, for the youth to go back to school, they complained. They didn’t want to go to school! They just wanted to keep doing the Lord’s work and help others.
In closing, one last story: Sister Kimberly Perry loaded her suburban with as many church sanitary buckets as it would hold, driving around town and handing them out. She had pulled up to a curb when a resident asked if she could have one of the buckets. Sister Perry quickly got out and gave her a bucket from the back of her vehicle. When the flood victim saw Christ’s picture on the front of our buckets, she said, “There is Jesus. He couldn’t stop the flood, but he never forgot us. He has been here all the time.”
There are so many stories within stories to tell of brave, courageous individuals that shared and cared with families, neighbors and friends through a difficult time in their lives. They rose to the challenge of the 2007 Vernonia flood. Their testimonies were tried and tested. They rose to the challenge, victorious as were our pioneers ancestors.
I hope I have inspired readers to prayerfully look at what you have put away for emergencies and what needs to be done yet and begin again gathering and organizing.
I leave you my testimony that Christ is here with us through all the disasters that come our way, but he expects us to do our share. Let’s gather our families around us, make a plan, and get to work filling in those things that need completing. A feeling of peace and comfort will abide with you and your loved ones as you work toward being completely prepared.

Sister Terry Grosnick,  previous member of the Vernonia Branch.

To learn more about emergency preparedness, click here

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