ashland.news
May 23, 2024

A look back at Ashland’s New Year’s Day Flood

Flood waters race through Ashland Plaza early on New Year's Day, 1997, after Ashland Creek backed up where Winburn Way crosses the creek. Terry Skibby photo
April 3, 2022

Just over 25 years ago, Ashland awoke to a new year and a rampaging creek

By Dennis Powers

Southern Oregon has experienced 11 major floods over the last century, with the landmark event occurring in 1964, which set most of the high-water records for the region. The area later experienced in late December 1996 and New Year’s Day of 1997 another destructive event, known as the “New Year’s Day Flood.” This event impacted residents on both sides of the border in Oregon and California.

Similar to 1964, a warm rain (“The Pineapple Express”) followed weeks of heavy snowfall on the mountains, and the streams and rivers rose to 100-year flood levels, leading to flooding in both urban and rural areas. This caused multi-million dollars of damages to homes, businesses, and infrastructure in Southern Oregon alone (one estimate being as high as $50 million). More than 1,500 people were evacuated and at least 1,000 properties were damaged. In January 1997, President Bill Clinton declared 14 Oregon countiesincluding Jackson, Josephine and Klamath countieseligible for disaster assistance.

More than 70 landslides occurred throughout Jackson County, but Ashland was hardest hit when Ashland Creek surged down to cut the town in half. The New Year’s Day flood of 1997 pounded into Ashland just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. With turbulent, muddy, dangerous waters, the swollen creek crashed through Lithia Park. When logs, mud, and debris clogged the culverts under Winburn Way at the entrance to Lithia Park, the massive tsunami-like flood leaped over its banks to flood the park and downtown Plaza.

Residents awoke on New Year’s Day to discover that the currents had ripped through streets, caused massive infrastructure damage, and severed the main sewer and water lines with a 20-foot waterfall that thundered down where an important street once was. The prime arteries of Main Street and Lithia Way through the town were impassable, and traffic needed to be detoured to Interstate 5 and over out-of the-way back streets.

Depending on the area, running water and sewage service was cut for a week or more. City residents couldn’t drink city water for up to two weeks and others didn’t have sewer service during most of January. Houses were flooded and people had to evacuate or scramble to higher floors. Plaza stores were inundated with mud; lawn chairs were in lower-lying trees. Spectators and residents alike walked close to the inundation area, generally silent but incredulous at the scene.  

Flood waters flow behind the Ashland Plaza buildings into Ashland Creek. Photo courtesy of Jeff LaLande

For days, residents put garbage cans out to collect rainwater, stood in line for drinking water from National Guard water trucks, collected water from gas stations and the rain to flush toilets, and even pooled money to rent portable toilets for their neighborhoods. Without water, the city brought in large semi-trucks with showers inside, and porta-potties were set up throughout the town. TheFederal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up tables for emergency loans.

Marty Bryant’s “Caring Friends” supplied food, clothing, and furniture for 200 families whose homes had been flooded by water, mud and debris. Friends put up others whose houses were not habitable, or they stayed at motels. Cleaning up, rebuilding, and working to reopen stores started when the floodwaters withdrew in two days.

Flood video just released

A nearly 20-minute video about the flood, “New Year Underwater,” was posted March 31 on JCLS Beyond, the Jackson County Library District YouTube channel. View it at this link: https://youtu.be/6qmayPekwSY.

As Ashland rebuilt, the city and residents turned Lithia Park back into the centerpiece that it is today. The culvert at Winburn Way was redesigned and reconstructed, as was the passage on the outskirts of the town. Learning the hard way about natural disaster preparedness, Ashland created a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program and has trained hundreds of volunteers in emergency preparedness.

Although Ashland now doesn’t show any effects from the flood, those here still remember it. Despite this, the risk of these type of disasters over time is always possible.

Sources: Dennis Powers, “Where Past Meets Present”; “Ashland New Year’s Day Flood of 1997,” pp. 191-193, Hellgate Press, Ashland, Oregon, 2017; John Darling, “The Deluge,” Mail Tribune, April 30, 2017, at New Year’s Day Flood (1997); Jackson County Emergency Management at Floods (including 1997).

Retired Southern Oregon University business law professor Dennis Powers, a historian and author of 25 books, has lived in Ashland for some 30 years. Email him at dennis@dennispowersbooks.com.

May 7, 2022, note: According to contemporaneous reporting by Curtis Hayden, founder, editor and co-publisher of The Sneak Preview, the most severe damage of the so-called “New Year’s Day” flood of 1997 actually occurred after midnight Jan. 1, so in the early morning hours of Thursday, Jan. 2, not on Wednesday, Jan. 1.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

Related Posts...

New historic markers installed in Railroad District

Ashland has a wealth of historic stories and sites, but the stories need telling and the sites need marking. An organized process called Marking Ashland Places (MAP) began a few years ago. Thanks to years-long work by volunteers from the Historic Preservation and Public Arts committees, we now have a large sculpture in Railroad Park along with five historic markers in the Railroad District.

Read More »

Ashland’s oldest hotel is back in business under new ownership

The oldest hotel in Ashland has just been reborn as a place “where the culture of music, art and Ashland vibes meets the relaxing rhythm of nature in the heart of the great Southern Oregon outdoors.” This quote from the newly renovated Columbia Hotel’s home page expresses much of the essence of what makes Ashland attractive to both visitors and residents.

Read More »

Racism ‘very much alive in Ashland’

Racism is very much alive in Ashland, even if it’s hidden, according to Portland State University history professor Kristen Teigen, who in a recent talk said the seeds were planted decades ago and still flourish today.

Read More »

Latest posts

OSF announces 2025 season: Variety colors “Homecoming” 90th season

Nine plays will take center stage during the 90th anniversary season of Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2025. Artistic Director Tim Bond reveled in the excitement about the lineup following the Tuesday afternoon announcement, sharing his hope that the season will be a rebirth for the nonprofit theater following a tumultuous few years.

Read More >

Explore More...

ashland.news logo

Subscribe to the newsletter and get local news sent directly to your inbox.

(It’s free)

Don't Miss Our Top Stories

Get our newsletter delivered to your inbox three times a week.
It’s FREE and you can cancel anytime.