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Night of rain was haunting reminder of 1964 flood

When Mother Nature beats a rainy rat-a-tat-tat on our metal roof the whole night through, her drum roll invariably brings up restless memories of 1964.

That, of course, was the year we southwestern Oregonians and northwestern Californians were up to our snoots in floodwater.

For the past century, it was the mother of all floods in our region.

Nothing like the memory of watching floodwaters creep up to your childhood home and invite itself in to make you sleep with one eye open when the rain pounds heavily on the roof.

The water stain left a muddy mark 4 feet above the floor. But we were fortunate: the neighbor's house floated across the highway.

Granted, the current weather scenario is far different than the flood of '64 in Jackson and Josephine counties. The ground is not yet as sodden as a proverbial sponge soaked in water. There is currently no huge snowpack in our mountains waiting to be washed away by unseasonably warm rains.

We are only now emerging from what looked like a sure-fire drought a little more than a week ago. Indeed, we sorely needed the rain and snow. Still do.

We obviously don't need what our unfortunate brethren to the north have suffered through in the way of high water. Still, our turn may come.

Yet this winter has been more than a little lackluster, until this tempest came along.

In truth, I am a bit of a stormophile. I appreciate a good storm, providing it remains quasi friendly. No hurting folks or moving houses across the road, please.

My appreciation for a good storm probably comes from my Southern Oregon schoolboy days of hoping those snowflakes drifting down would pile up, closing school for the day.

In fact, I've always felt let down as an adult — chronologically, at least — that we don't get snow days off from work. A user-friendly storm recharges body and soul. There are few things more refreshing than walking through a forest covered with a fresh coat of snow, stopping to check out the tracks of woodland creatures going about their lives. Listening to rain pattering on broadleaf maples never fails to cleanse the mind.

And watching a storm on the Oregon Coast, with the wind-driven rain pelting your face, always invigorates. Best to watch from a safe distance, however.

Again, my zest for stormy weather stops when lives are threatened and dreams wash away. I don't recall anyone locally dying during the '64 flood, but it certainly was a nightmare to those of us fleeing to higher ground.

After laying down a blanket of heavy, wet snow in the mountains, the stormmeister began pelting the region with warm rain three days before Christmas. The downpour continued night and day, melting the heavy snowpack.

As the rain came down, my family — the widow Fattig and her five urchins (with my twin and I on the tail end) — was enduring life in a tiny house some three miles north of Kerby. We lived on the west side of a place known as Sauers Flat which is bisected by Highway 199.

If there had been a railroad track in the Illinois Valley, we would have lived across the tracks. We're talking poorest of the poor. We didn't have much to lose but we could ill afford to lose what little we had.

The Illinois River normally flows peacefully nearly a half-mile to the west. But it went wild that year, crossing the highway and carrying the Pences' — our neighbors — white house across the road.

The river's brown surface rolled like the ocean, carrying with it the flotsam of Kerby society — logs, couches, canning jars, sheds, barrels, tires, a couple of pigs. The rumor of a casket bobbing past was never nailed down, so to speak.

Joining in the rampage were the equally rowdy Rogue and Applegate rivers. From Ashland to Agness, no community was spared from the roiling floodwaters.

Bridges spanning all three rivers were ripped out. The Rogue certainly lived up to its name, taking out the bridge to Shady Cove as well as Dodge and Bybee bridges farther downstream.

The Rogue crested at 35.15 feet at Grants Pass, where the flood stage is 24.5 feet, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It was the worst flood since the 1800s, with the deepest being the inundation of 1861 when water rose to an estimated 43 feet at Grants Pass, the Corps recorded.

More than 600 people were evacuated in Jackson County and 300 in Josephine County, including our family, that bleak Christmas week. We temporarily moved in with a bighearted cousin and his family, then rented a house in Kerby.

Once the ground no longer squished when walked on, we moved back into our exceedingly humble abode. A fire truck had been brought in to hose the mud and occasional water snake off the floor. A few two-by-fours were nailed here and there to shore up the battered old place.

But nothing could be done to stop a kid from worrying on those long nights when rain began a steady drumbeat.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.