Feb. 8, 1996: Vera Katz builds her wall…

It was Mayor Vera Katz vs. the Willamette River. That night, Katz won.

In February 1996, a sudden blast of warm air and heavy rains melted the Cascade Mountains snowpack and set loose flooding all over Oregon. Swollen rivers submerged houses and swamped whole towns. Gov. John Kitzhaber declared 14 counties disaster areas.

In Portland, the churning Willamette River inundated the walkways at RiverPlace and nearly rose to the deck of the Hawthorne Bridge. The river threatened to overrun the seawall at Tom McCall Waterfront Park and submerge downtown Portland.

Three years into her first term as mayor, Katz called on city workers and volunteers to build a bulwark along the seawall.

Citizens responded as well, helping erect a plywood scaffold covered in plastic sheeting and anchored with sandbags that ran for a mile, between the Steel and Hawthorne bridges. Katz, wearing a purple raincoat, strode along the wall, thanking volunteers.

Marty Smith—later to become WW's Dr. Know—described the Waterfront Park scene as feeling like a town barn-raising. "People were actually enjoying this," he reported.

"Vera's Wall" proved unnecessary. The Willamette's waters stopped inches short of topping the seawall. Had the waters risen any higher, the river could have run around Vera's Wall, which probably couldn't have withstood the Willamette's force.

But Katz's decisive action earned her praise and gratitude. "It was the visible display of the Vera Katz that happened every day," recalls Sam Adams, who was Katz's chief of staff and later became mayor. "It showed her gutsy style of leadership."

When she was 7, Katz and her family escaped Nazi Germany by crossing the Pyrenees on foot. She got into politics to support Bobby Kennedy in 1968, entered the Oregon House in 1973 and served as speaker for eight years.

She could be motherly at one moment, blunt the next and fearsome to anyone who took her on. The 1992 race for Portland mayor was to be an epic battle between her and then-City Commissioner Earl Blumenauer. She crushed him.

In her three terms, Katz held back the damage that property-tax ballot measures could have wreaked on public school budgets by sending city money to schools. She oversaw a dramatic drop in crime rates. And her strongest legacy remains city planning, especially the transformation of gritty Northwest Portland into the Pearl District. Without Katz, we wouldn't have the South Waterfront, the aerial tram or the floating bike paths of the Eastbank Esplanade, where her bronze statue now sits.

"I guess my approach was to think about what a city should look like, feel like—what a city should become," Katz says. "How you make it a place where people feel safe, a place where you educate young people, a place that attracts what I call 'the young and the restless.' How do you grow gracefully?"

But Vera's Wall also symbolized the ways in which Katz's legacy made little difference against powerful forces. She did little to confront rapid gentrification in North and Northeast Portland that priced out African-Americans. She didn't face up to a runaway police and fire pension system or keep in check a police chief, Mark Kroeker, whose bureau intensified its reputation for excessive force.

When Katz mulled a third term, then-City Commissioner Charlie Hales berated her for complacency. "If we went into the 1970s with the city stalled under a cloud of smog," he told WW, "we're going into the next decade stalled under a cloud of smug."

Before leaving office in 2004, Katz revealed that she was battling cancer for a second time. It was no match for her. She beat the diagnosis both times. Now 81, she is weakened by the dialysis required because of her chemotherapy.

"People admired her, because she was tough," says Beverly Stein, who chaired the Multnomah County Commission while Katz ran the city. "She demonstrated that women could do the job as well as anybody."

Katz wants that verdict amended.

From the archives:

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW’s journalism through our Give!Guide Fundraising page.