Thursday, May 18, 2006

Vanport: 2050

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.

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