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Why it wasn't worse

Prior work and planning helped limit flood severity

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By Lukas Velush and jeff swtizer / Herald Writers
  • Water flows over the top of a levee west of Snohomish on Tuesday. The levee system worked as it was designed to during this flood.

    Kevin Nortz / The Herald

    Water flows over the top of a levee west of Snohomish on Tuesday. The levee system worked as it was designed to during this flood.

Sheets of murky water from the raging Snohomish River cascaded over levees during last week's Election Day flooding.
The water poured unhindered into the Snohomish River valley. It covered part of Highway 9. It spilled into dozens of low-lying homes and barns. People and livestock headed for high ground.
And it all went according to plan, officials said.
"You could see the water uniformly flowing over the levees. It was pretty ideal," said Doug Weber, natural disaster program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
There were catastrophic failures of Snohomish River levees during flooding in 1975 and 1990. Federal and county officials worked with valley farmers to rebuild them so that all the levees and dikes are essentially the same height.
Experts believed the coordinated flood-protection system would work more like a pressure-release valve, bleeding off the river's energy when the water got too high.
And 16 years later, it worked perfectly, said Vaughn Collins, hydraulic engineer for Snohomish County.
The Snohomish reached 34.9 feet, a whisker below the record set in 1990. It hung there for more than a dozen hours, a long crest that "was diffused," Collins said.

"I think most people agree that this is the best the system has performed," he said. "I don't think there's been a big flood in the past where something didn't break."
Flooding in 1995 gave officials a good clue that the new approach to managing levees would work.
"In '95, some levees had been fixed," Collins said. "Our big breeches were in segments that had not been fully brought up to the new standards."
By the late 1990s, all of the levees had been leveled out, but they weren't tested by a major flood until Election Day.
"I can see a real benefit," said John Misich, a former commissioner of the Marshland Flood Control District near Snohomish. "It's a tremendous improvement from what it was."
There was so much damage in 1990 - $4 million countywide - that something had to be done.
In the years leading up to the 1990 flood, the diking districts competed with each other to see who could build the tallest levees. The river unerringly found weak points in the system.
That didn't happen this time, but Misich said that's no reason to get complacent.
"Most of the public is not aware that you really need to maintain the slide slopes" of the levees and dikes, he said. "It's very important to maintain the vegetation. That grass and those roots from the sod that keep (the water) from eroding and causing a blowout."
In 1995, one levee failure was blamed on hungry llamas that had chomped away the grass, making the levee vulnerable to erosion.
Off-road vehicles driven on levees does similar damage, ripping holes in the grass and giving a flooding river a place to gnaw a breach, Misich said.
Agency learns from past
The state Department of Transportation moved so fast to prepare for last week's flooding that they scared some people.
"Right when this weather started, we put big cranes on the (U.S. 2) trestle," said Jamie Holter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. "That's when all the rumors about DOT closing the trestle started."
The trestle never closed.
Holter said the cranes were put out early because in the past the state moved too slowly to prevent logjams from forming below the bridge.
The cranes were able to keep hundreds of giant trees and logs that washed down the river moving along on their way to Possession Sound.
In similar speedy fashion, the state took one hour to open Highway 9 in Snohomish after floodwaters rolled back Thursday morning. After the 1990 flood, the state rebuilt Highway 9 near Snohomish and armored the downstream slope of the road. That kept the fast-moving floodwater from chewing up the roadway.
"It's always a gamble when dealing with Mother Nature," said Mel Reitz, area maintenance superintendent for the Transportation Department. "In this case, experience and planning ended up helping quite a bit."
A little luck never hurts either.
When a mudslide took out U.S. 2 east of Skykomish, one of the Transportation Department's main contractors just happened to have a crew working nearby on a project in Skykomish as part of an environmental cleanup.
Within hours, Wilder Construction was using its front-end loaders and other heavy-duty equipment to scrape 300 dump truck loads of mud off U.S. 2. Within two days the road was reopened.
Changes at county level
County disaster managers worked around the clock all week helping coordinate rescues, close roads and evacuate neighborhoods.
They did it from a set of World War II era barracks at Paine Field.
About 35 people were crammed into a wing of the barracks that serves as offices for the Department of Emergency Management headquarters.
"It posed some challenges," said John Pennington, the county's new emergency management director. "It certainly reinforces the belief that we need a bigger EOC (emergency operations center) in the long run, but it did meet our needs."
The floods were the first Snohomish County disaster for Pennington and for his department, which was absorbed by county government at the start of the year.
Pennington quit as the Region 10 director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency overseeing Washington and three other states to take the Snohomish County job.
Once hired, he shifted his department from running out to help with sandbagging to more of a coordinating role.
The department is in the middle of spending a $1 million homeland security grant on upgrades to its headquarters.
Most of the equipment is in boxes or piled in a classroom. Officials don't expect to complete the work until January.
That didn't worry Chris Badger, Pennington's deputy director.
"I was wishing it was done already. The timing couldn't have been more poor, but thankfully we were familiar enough with the space we knew how to utilize it. Nobody missed a beat."
Only four laptop computers, some phones and a printer were bought with that money and were ready to be used during this flood.
Something as simple as having more phones and computers is important, Badger said. Instead of two phones for six people, nearly every worker had a phone, she said.
Meanwhile, emergency officials from throughout the community worked as a team, and that cooperation was the foundation for success, she said.

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