It's been 157 years since a hurricane hit the West Coast of the United States. But even Portland isn't immune to the effects of tropical cyclones.
That's because hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have federal regulators considering whether already-built levees across the country are actually safe, a discussion causing headaches for local governments nationwide.
In Portland, that conversation is focused along the Columbia River, an area shielded from floodwaters decades ago by levees.
That area is now one of the state's major jobs centers, containing Portland International Airport and dozens of factories and warehouses. One in 10 of the region's jobs are based in the area. It's also home to hundreds of acres of vacant land that could be used for growth in the Portland region.
It also is home to several Metro facilities, including the Expo Center, Blue Lake Regional Park and the M. James Gleason Memorial Boat Ramp.
In enacting more stringent standards for levees, the federal government could say areas like the Multnomah County Drainage District – most areas between Columbia Boulevard and the Columbia River – are included in areas likely to be inundated in a large flood.
The designation wouldn't change much in terms of the actual likelihood of flooding. The 60-year-old levees, said drainage district director Reed Wagner, have survived the test of time.
"In 1996, our levies were tested and they performed very well," Wagner told the Metro Council at a Feb. 24 work session. "There was very little seepage for the amount of rain we had. Our levees are built to bring water through them, to minimize the amount of pressure on the levees themselves."
But without certification from FEMA, many property owners could be forced to pick up flood insurance, which can have crippling costs.
"If these were to not get accredited," said Oregon Solutions deputy director Steve Greenwood, "it would have disastrous effects for the region."
Advocates were asking the Metro Council to sign on to a declaration of cooperation with other parties looking for a solution to the levee certification issue. Studies are underway to determine what that solution might be.
"FEMA really cares more about the size of those levees and how they function under high water events," Wagner said. "Is it tall enough? Will it withstand a certain amount of pressure? The railroad levee is one of the areas we might have to build a setback levee."
That "railroad levee" is on the west side of the drainage district, between the Heron Lakes Golf Club and the Smith and Bybee wetlands. It's the levee that breached in the 1948 Vanport flood, which wiped out a racially diverse community of more than 18,000 people, killing 15 residents.
Other areas that could need bolstering include the portions of the levee nearest the Interstate Bridge, and the Columbia River levee near Northeast 33rd Avenue near the Bridgeton neighborhood.
Metro's cooperation in the project doesn't commit the regional government to putting money into a solution. The long-term fix will cost well into the millions of dollars.
"We went in knowing the average for urban-area levee upgrades was $11 million a mile – and we had 26 miles," Wagner said.
He's optimistic the final cost of the project will be far less than the $286 million it would cost to rebuild all the levees at that average price. Preliminary engineering on the one of the four drainage districts showed few problems on the levees.
"Our hope with what we've learned so far system-wide (across all the levees), it'll be under $100 million," Wagner said. "But we've heard stories from across the country."
The Metro Council has not yet scheduled a vote on whether to sign on to the cooperation agreement.