FROM THE ARCHIVES: Remembering the flood of 1972

Swollen by a violent spring runoff, the Okanogan River became a relentless torrent of brown, bone chilling water, pouring across thousands of acres of farmland and forcing its way into cities and towns in June 1972.

Chronicle archives
Swollen by a violent spring runoff, the Okanogan River became a relentless torrent of brown, bone chilling water, pouring across thousands of acres of farmland and forcing its way into cities and towns in June 1972.



(Editor's note: This is the story of "Greatest flood since 1894 sweeps Okanogan Valley" as published by The Chronicle June 8, 1972.)

OMAK - Swollen by a violent spring runoff, the Okanogan River last week became a relentless torrent of brown, bone chilling water, pouring across thousands of acres of farmland and forcing its way into cities and towns.

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It was the greatest flood in the Okanogan Valley since 1894 — greater than 1948, an outpouring so monstrous that most who lived here then felt such a thing could never happen again in their lifetimes.

But the river last week was 1948 and more — surging across the lower reaches of East Omak, rising into homes along Okanogan Second Avenue, rupturing dikes or flowing across them, upwelling to turn earth into muck.

Omak and Okanogan became cities under siege.

Olive-green Army trucks manned by National Guardsmen helped evacuate families.

Thousands of volunteers filled and placed sandbags.

Dump trucks roared down streets with fresh loads of dirt.

Bulldozers snarled along dikes to shore up weak spots saturated by seeping water.

Red-eyed with fatigue — like many others — the people making decisions clustered about desks in round-the-clock command posts as fresh trouble spots were reported by radio.

Women served thousands of meals in the Omak Presbyterian Church and at Okanogan High School.

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Police and guardsmen stood at many corners, directing traffic and keeping avenues cleared for emergency vehicles. They waved back at clusters of excited teen-agers sitting on mounds of sandbags whirling past on flatbed trucks.

At night, patrols tramped along the dikes, their flashlights weaving in search of fresh cracks or sogginess.

Helicopters chattered overhead. Portable generators howled, pumping water from flooded sewer lines. People who had never seen each other before became comrades in crisis.

The dikes built along the Okanogan River following the flood of 1948 took a terrific beating. Some collapsed, as at Riverside. Some were overflowed. Many became dangerously saturated with water.

But at Omak and elsewhere, the main dikes held. Had Omak’s west side dike broken down, there would have been tow-feet of water on downtown Main Street and hundreds of more homes inundated.

The great rush of water which poured down the Okanogan Valley last week came after heavy snowfalls in the Cascade Mountains had been kept locked up by a cool spring.

Over Memorial Day weekend an early-summer heat wave pushed temperatures into the 90’s and the freeze level rose abruptly to 14,000 feet.

Nearly every snow bank below that level began melting at once. In trickles, streams, cascades, the waters began coursing into the upper Similkameen and Okanogan Rivers.

Soon the Similkameen, roaring into Okanogan County from British Columbia, had fused with Palmer Lake to form a single body of water 10 miles long.

At Oroville, where the Similkameen pours into the Okanogan, providing 80 percent of its flow, the deluge spread across the river bottoms, forming another lake a mile wide and reaching almost to Tonasket.

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By last Tuesday the main stream was invading Tonasket. Home were evacuated Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

The rising river threatened Riverside, where an early struggle got under way to preserve the dike system.

At Omak and Okanogan there were signs of a flood everywhere. The river invaded East Omak through the Stampede Arena, where a desperate effort to throw a dike across the arena grounds failed Wednesday night.

By then homes in East Omak and behind Okanogan’s Second Avenue were being flooded and evacuated.

Thursday and Friday were days of repeated crises and frenzied activity as several thousand local residents with hundreds of reinforcements from government agencies fought to preserve west-side dikes.

At times, Omak was within minutes of disastrous breakthroughs.

The flow of the Similkameen River, last week reached its peak of 18.7 feet at Nighthawk at 4 p.m. last Wednesday, but its lessening flow only permitted huge volumes of water backed up into Lake Osoyoos and points north to reinforce the Okanogan’s surge.

The Okanogan crested at 22.54 feet at 5:30 a.m. Saturday at the Janis Bridge below Tonsaket, as compared with a 21.79-foot crest in 1948.

Curiously, the Okanogan River apparently reached its highest level in the Omak-Okanogan area some six hours earlier, at about 11:30 p.m. Friday. But the extent of flooding and many other factors can affect readings at various points.

The Army Engineers estimated the maximum flow at 44,000 cubic feet per second. The high in 1948 was 40,900 cubic feet per second.

But by Saturday, many stretches of dike had been reinforced and only a final massive effort behind a block of Juniper Street needed to protect the towns.

Monday morning found the river level down tow feet form its crest and the Army Engineers’ Leonard Juhnke, flood engineer for the Okanogan and Methow Valleys, declaring:

“It’s been a long, hard fight but things are now going our way.”

Juhnke issued a preliminary damage estimate of $6.8 million in the Okanogan Valley. He said that without the 1949 dikes and the effort to maintain them, another $3 million in damages would have occurred.

He declared the corps of engineers’ “Operation Foresight,” a 2-month effort earlier this year to strengthen dikes, had prevented an additional $408,000 in damages.

Civil Defense Director Bain Crofoot estimated 500 Okanogan County homes had been evacuated. These included some up the Methow Valley, where a violent but shorter flood ripped at riverbanks but caused only an estimated $190,000 in damages.

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Public Works Director Ev Philips, who directed the flood fight in Omak, said 200 homes were evacuated here, many as precautionary measures, and about 100 were partly flooded.

At Okanogan Mayor Otto Yusi, who personally directed the 5-day struggle, said 59 homes were flooded and 200 were affected by floodwaters.

There were no serious injuries.

The only flood-related death was that of 70-year-old Harley K. Eskridge of Loomis, who Thursday morning returned to his evacuated home on Palmer Lake to check the water level. While going down some steps leading to the lake, he either slipped or the steps gave way. His body was recovered by skin divers.

The Army Engineers’ estimate of about $7 million in damages for the Okanogan and Methow Valleys is far higher than the 1948 estimated damage figure of $1,520,000.

Inflation accounts for part of this. So do additional developments along the rivers. It is certain the 1972 flood was the most costly in the history of the Okanogan River Valley.

Though more water may have come down in 1894, the Okanogan country then was sparsely settled and the towns were mining camps located in the foothills.

Enormous resources were mustered to fight last week’s flood.

The corps of engineers’ force in Okanogan County mushroomed to 50 people.

The corps swirled through its initial $100,000 allocation in four days — and asked for more — in contracting for 106 tractors, dump trucks, flatbeds, portable generators, and other pieces of equipment.

The corps also hired more than 650 people. Going rates were $30-$35 and hour for a tractor, $20 an hour for dump trucks, $10 and hour for flatbeds. Workers signed up at the Okanogan City Hall for $3.26 an hour.

After Gov. Daniel J. Evans declared Okanogan County a flood disaster Okanogan County a flood disaster area at 4 p.m. last Wednesday. Okanogan’s 161st Infantry National Guard Company was mobilized.



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