Okanogan Old-Timers Recall The Valley's Flood History

May 18, 2018

Residents of the Okanogan Valley have been battling floodwaters for more than a week. But floods are not a new thing here. There have been two major floods in previous decades.

Memories of those floods along the Okanogan River are burned into the collective memory of this valley.

Arnie Marchand is a from the Okanogan Tribe and is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. He was born in Omak. Marchand was only 3 years old when the second-worst flood in recorded history took place back in 1948. He doesn’t remember it, but he remembers his family’s stories.

Arnie Marchand now works at the museum and visitor's center in Oroville, Washington. He was born in Omak in 1945.
Credit Emily Schwing / Northwest News Network

“You have to understand that in ‘48, the war just got over, people are just coming back, the economy is picking up,” Marchand said. “It’s really moving rapidly,” he said.

The flood slowed some of that progress, but luckily Marchand’s parents still had work.

“It didn’t hurt the agriculture that much,” he said.”It hurt a couple of orchards, but mostly dad and mom were like every other Indian in this valley. You couldn’t serve white people in a restaurant, all you had was the orchard work or construction work, that’s all you could do. So, if it didn’t drown the orchards, it didn’t hurt your job.”

“Gosh, it just flooded everything and it was so exciting,” said Ruth Tembey. She was in middle school in 1948 when the Okanogan River flooded at Tonasket.

“It caught everybody off guard because there hadn’t been a flood recorded, I don’t think,” she said. She turned to her husband Richard, who was also in middle school in Tonasket at the time.

“Well, there was one, like, in 1898, or something like that,” he recalled. “That was supposed to be way up to some pine tree that was a quarter mile back from the river,” he said.

That flood actually took place in 1894, but there are no officials records because the National Weather Service didn’t start collecting river data for the Okanogan until 1929.

It would be another 24 years before the valley saw a flood that was even worse than in 1948.

“In ’72, the kids took rowboats out and rowed through the neighbor’s house,” Ruth Tembey recalled with a laugh. “I think they could get through the window and just rowed through.”

Ruth and Richard Tembey were both born in 1935. They've lived in Tonasket, Washington, almost all their lives.
Credit Emily Schwing / Northwest News Network

Marchand said the flooding in 1972 was very serious.

“There’s lots of things that were lost in ’72,”he said. “Thank God the devastation isn’t that bad yet.”

Both floods were so significant that when Brock Hires saw forecasts for major flooding again this year, he paid a visit to the archives of the Omak-Okanogan Chronicle. Hires is the newspaper's managing editor.

In an enormous book labeled ‘Archive 1972,' photos from the time show the Stampede Arena in Omak filled with water and homes and business flooded throughout the valley.

“In every picture, there are people moving and bustling to help each other out,” Hires said. “It destroyed homes, it flooded fields and [it was a] $20 million-dollar loss. And the flood of ’48 brought $6.8 million worth of loss. Now, with inflation, that comes out to about $70 million today.“

Currently there are no officials estimates for losses or damage from flooding this year, but that will come as flood waters recede.

The communities along the Okanogan River learned something from these previous floods. U.S. Highway 97—the main highway that runs north-south through the valley—was elevated and strengthened during the Cold War. After 1972, most of the communities also set about constructing dikes.

And with modern technology and communications systems, the communities now have days, if not weeks to prepare for floods—which they didn’t decades ago.