Swept Away: Tragedy on the Sandy River

Trillium Lake—a summer cold front over Mount Hood that brought heavy rain and thunderstorms.
Trillium Lake—a summer cold front over Mount Hood that brought heavy rain and thunderstorms.

A little rain each day will fill the rivers to overflowing.

—African Proverb

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I heard the sirens going up the highway, one about every fifteen minutes for nearly an hour and a half. I knew something awful had happened.  

It had been hot and unusually humid in northwestern Oregon. Daytime highs reached or neared 100 degrees that parched the Willamette Valley. Even here in the Cascades, it was a stifling 90 degrees. Beyond the innocent blue sky, thunderstorms were pending.  Should they reach us, they would provide some much-needed relief.  

The storms began east of the Cascades in the southern part of the state. High pressure that had been cooking us for days now gradually was breaking down, which allowed low pressure to move in; thus adding the ingredient for thunderstorms.

It was August 12, 2014 that thunderstorms began to assemble in the Cascades over Mount Hood. These were intense storms, so much in fact, that the National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Watch. Such a warning is almost unheard of in this part of the country.

Around 12:30 p.m., the first rumbles of thunder rolled off the Cascades. The sky grew dark. I checked the radar on my iPad that showed a large storm cell just to the east tracking north, and another just to the south tracking northwest. From our place, we were between the two storms. This was a relief because even at a distance, these storms were intense. Not only were there high winds and dangerous lightning to think about, but these storms were slow-moving and dumping tremendous loads of rain at a rate of 2 to 4 inches an hour!

For three and a half hours, the storms persisted—one right after another. Having resided in these mountains for seventeen years, I’ve never heard thunder last more than an hour. Back to the radar, I watched the storms come and go. The sky was a solid mass of gray with jagged flashes of white that flickered along with the lights. Rain was falling steady, but not nearly as hard as it was falling just east of here. I stepped outside to smell the storm. Huge raindrops spattered the soil. Thunder roared. The air was charged, and I breathed the sweet essence of soil and fir sap, and smiled. The air, though slightly humid, was fifteen degrees cooler, which was another reason to smile. Wearing shorts, t-shirt and sandals, I let the rain wash over me until the next flash of light and rumble sent me back indoors.    

Rain pelted the roof. Puddles in the woods grew to the size of small ponds. Sirens blared up the highway; one about every fifteen minutes for an hour and a half. Whenever it rains hard, I think about our nearby rivers and the risk of flash flooding for those within their reach.  And with storms as intense as these, I was surprised that no flash flood alert was issued. While any river can turn dangerous during heavy rainfall, there are two rivers in these mountains notorious for it—the White River on Mount Hood’s south face, and the Sandy River on Mount Hood’s west face. Both rivers are prone to glacier outburst floods, and flash flooding.

This home along the Sandy River was ripped apart and nearly swept away by an outburst flood in 2008.
This home along the Sandy River was ripped apart and nearly swept away by an outburst flood in 2008.

When the thunderstorms finally ended, there was just the sound of the rain. The sirens too, had also stopped. It wasn’t until later that evening that I learned about the tragedy that took place on the upper Sandy River.

Twenty-three hikers on the Sandy River Trail #770, which connects with Ramona Falls Trail #797, were caught by the severe thunderstorms. As the weather stormed the mountain, hikers scrambled to reach the Sandy River footbridge—a seasonal bridge that is airlifted to the site in early spring, and airlifted out in the fall. It was at the footbridge when tragedy struck.  A flash flood struck the footbridge, in which a hiker was attempting to cross.  Some say the river rose two feet; others say it was closer to four. The flash flood swept away the footbridge and sadly the 34-year-old man from Illinois.

As the river continued its rampage, the twenty-three hikers, now without a way to cross, were stranded. Across the river, a hiker learned what had happened, and went for help.  It would be a mile to the parking area, and a two-mile drive to town before phone service engaged, and help could be dispatched.  Once emergency crews arrived, it took several hours to get all twenty-three people safely across the river in rafts. The body of the hiker was recovered later that day more than a mile downriver.  

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When enjoying the outdoors always pay attention to the weather—know that if you can hear thunder, you can be hit by lightning. If you hear thunder while along a river or are caught in a heavy downpour, leave the river at once!

►To learn more about river safety, please visit River Crossing Safety.   

At Sundial Beach, at the mouth of the Sandy River where it joins the Columbia River in Troutdale, Oregon. This picture was taken more than a week later following the flash flood.  The discoloration is caused by mud, silt, and glacial flour.
At Sundial Beach, the Sandy River joins the Columbia River in Troutdale, Oregon. This picture was taken more than a week later following the flash flood. Visible are large logs and the coffee-colored water, which is a mixture of mud, silt, and glacial flour.

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Copyright 2014.  All rights reserved.

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