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 counties — including Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties — eligible 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.