1 person presumed drowned in SE Portland’s Johnson Creek; 2nd body found in Washington County creek

Brown, muddied water flows by rapidly. The creek is lined by trees that have lost most of their leaves.

Johnson Creek, seen here on Tues., Dec. 4, 2023, near where it passes under Southeast 45th Place, not far from the Tacoma / Johnson Creek MAX station where a person was carried off by the swift waters the previous day.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

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Rescue crews recovered the body of a man believed to have been swept away and drowned in the rain-swollen waters of Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland on Monday. And on Tuesday, Washington County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters recovered the body of a second man in a local creek, as flood warnings continue for northwest Oregon and the coast.

Medical examiners in Multnomah and Washington counties -- along with police -- are working to identify the identities of both men, as well as confirm their causes of death.

Portland Fire & Rescue spokesperson Rick Graves said initial reports from investigators suggested that the man who died in Johnson Creek might have been camping near the creek and fell in or might have been someone who was visiting the area to help people experiencing homelessness.

Portland Fire & Rescue received a call shortly after 7 a.m. – before sunrise – that someone had been swept away by the creek while clutching a couch cushion for floatation near the Southeast Tacoma-Johnson Creek MAX station, which is close to where Southeast Portland borders Milwaukie. Crews found what they believe is the couch cushion near a cluster of tree branches, sticks or other debris known as a strainer. Strainers are known to let water through but trap solid objects underwater.

Milwaukie police searched the creek using a drone, and rescuers from the Clackamas Fire District responded in boats. But the rugged waters flipped two boats – sending rescuers into the water, Graves said. The search for the man was called off, Graves said.

Then, shortly before 2 p.m., a property owner near the creek reporting spotting a body, which authorities determined to be the body of the missing man from earlier in the day, said Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy John Plock. The sheriff’s river patrol and dive team recovered the man’s body around 4 p.m. Monday.

“It’s just incredibly dangerous right now,” Graves said. “And it’s going to do nothing but get more dangerous for the next 36 hours. The water is going to continue to rise.”

Data posted by the National Weather Service showed the cubic feet of water flowing per second was more than 15 times the normal rate at the time man was swept away in Johnson Creek.

Kristle Delihanty, founder of PDX Saints Love, a non-profit that offers aid to people who are living unsheltered, said every time severe rainstorms approach the Johnson Creek area her organization sends out weather alerts to clients, who help spread the word to others that it’s time to move to higher ground. When this latest rainstorm hit, crews visited the area under Southeast 92nd Avenue and Flavel Sreet, where the creek flows and people camp to stay out of the rain, to pass out tents and tarps and encourage them to move away from the water.

“The message we try to get out to them is ‘I know you think it looks like it’s far away, but it’s not. It can come in the night when you’re sleeping and not aware,’” Delihanty said. “We try to explain the dangers of being in a zipped up tent and trying to navigate yourself when the flooding comes up.”

Delihanty said the number fluctuates over time, but well over 100 people live in the brush and trees along Johnson Creek from Gresham to Milwaukie. She said the numbers are higher immediately after people have been told to move on from their camps along city streets and sidewalks.

In Washington County, sheriff’s deputies received a report of a body found in Bronson Creek near Northwest Anzalone Drive, east of Quatama Park and southeast of Hillsboro, at 10:20 a.m. Tuesday. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue responded to recover the body of a deceased man, who was entangled in some branches in the creek.

There were no visible signs of injury that would have caused the man’s death, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities are investigating the possibility that he died by drowning, among other causes.

A photo shows a person in a white protective suit and firefighter in firefighting gear standing on a brush-covered slope next to Bronson Creek with what appears to be a yellow plastic tarp or bag.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office provided this photo of authorities recovering the body of a man found in Bronson Creek near Northwest Anzalone Drive on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.Washington County Sheriff's Office

It has rained more than 2.5 inches in the Portland area in the first four days of December. The coastal range and the Cascades have been hit even harder – with 2 to 6 inches in the 24-hour period from Monday morning into Tuesday. Precipitation and snow melt from unusually high temperatures mean rivers and creeks are moving fast.

Another 1 to 6 inches of rain are forecast in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington on Tuesday into Wednesday. Flood warnings and advisories are in effect.

High waters closed U.S. 101 near Seaside Tuesday. Amtrak said on Tuesday that a landslide forced it to close all train service from Portland to Seattle until at least Thursday.

— Aimee Green; agreen@oregonian.com; @o_aimee

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