The Vanport City flood of 1948 near Portland, which left 17,500 people homeless and claimed an estimated 15 lives, proved that a future La Grande principal was also a hero.
Lanetta Paul of La Grande will forever hold the memory of the heroism and humility of this man, her father, close to her heart.
Paul was only 4 years old on Memorial Day 1948, when a railroad dike holding back the Columbia River collapsed, unleashing a 10-foot-high wall of water that destroyed Vanport City, located in the old Jantzen Beach area now known as Delta Park.
Paul, her parents, Harvey and Genevieve Carter, and two older sisters, were living in Vanport City at the time.
“Fortunately for us, my older sister Barbara and mother were attending the Ice Follies in Portland,” Paul said during a presentation in Island City Saturday at a meeting of the Chapter CO of P.EO. International, a philanthropic education organization which Paul is a member of.
Paul said the absence of her mom and oldest sister the afternoon of May 30, 1948, meant that her father and 8-year-old sister, Darla, were the only ones home when the town was flooded.
“My dad was trying to get me down for a nap,” Paul said.
Her father, though, kept being interrupted by Darla, who ran in telling him that many people were moving. Lanetta Paul said her father was not concerned since he knew of several neighbors who were planning to move away.
Finally Darla ran in and cried, “But, Daddy, everyone is moving!”
He then looked outside and saw a wall of water running down the street. The three then rushed outside to escape, with Lanetta riding on her dad’s shoulders.
“My dad guided us toward a tree, avoiding houses and the logs, which had served as parking barriers and were already beginning to float,” Paul said.
Along the way, the trio picked up a frightened young boy who was on his doorstep, waiting for his mother who had promised to return for him. Paul’s father then found a tree and lifted his daughters and the boy into the branches. Minutes later floodwaters began threatening the tree.
“About the time he was thinking we would have to abandon that tree, a helicopter flew over and spotted us and immediately sent a boat to rescue us,” Paul said.
She said she was not sure where it was everyone gathered to unite with families, but she will always remember the story her mom told of how the young boy’s mother rushed up and pulled him into her arms.
“My dad, never one to seek recognition, quietly disappeared into the crowd, never knowing the name of the child he had saved,” Paul said.
Harvey Carter, an educator then on leave for a year from the La Grande School District, was taking classes for a master’s degree in education at a new college named Vanport Extension, which later became Portland State University. He was also a swim instructor who had made a point of teaching everyone in his family how to swim.
“My father had taught swimming all of his life, so Darla and I were well acquainted with water,” Paul said.
She said she was not frightened during the flood, and her familiarity with water was only a small reason.
“When my family asked, ‘Were you scared?’ I replied, ‘No, I was on my daddy’s shoulders!’”
The structures Paul saw floating away while on her father’s shoulders were built in 1942 and 1943 to provide housing for men and women building ships for the U.S. military in Portland during World War II.
Paul said she does not remember where her family stayed after the flood while her father finished his master’s degree work. She does remember how generous people in La Grande were to her family when they heard about the flood.
“Our friends gave us gifts to replace our belongings when we came back,” she said. “It was all quite wonderful.”