By Diana Hefley, Kaitlin Manry, Eric Stevick, Debra Smith and Gale Fiege Herald writers
About 500 Snohomish County homes have been flooded this week, but the exact damage is still being tallied , officials said this afternoon.
Most of the homes are near the Pilchuck River in Snohomish, in Stanwood and Arlington, county spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said.
Heavy rains pounded the state and sent rivers gushing over their banks. Floodwaters shut down major highways and caused hundreds of people to flee their homes.
Snohomish County was one of the hardest hit areas, officials said. Emergency crews rescued dozens of people from their homes.
The Snohomish River Valley remains a bathtub. The river is holding steady at record levels and isn’t predicted to drop any significant amount until later tonight or Saturday.
Flooding closed 60 county roads. Today, public works crews were scrambling to evaluate streets and bridges for damage and get them open.
“When you have flood waters moving that fast across a road and they tell you not to drive through flood waters, it’s because the force of that water can move the car off that road,” Schwarzen said. “Well, it can also tear off concrete and asphalt.”
Emergency officials have asked the Snohomish County sheriff’s helicopter crew to tour areas where there are concerns about levee damage and broken pipes.
The crew has been flying above the Snohomish River Valley, along with the Pilchuck River and may work its way up to Stanwood.
The helicopter is equipped with camera that allows it to send real-time pictures back to the emergency operations center at Paine Field. From there, emergency officials can assess the damage, sheriff’s Capt. Tim Shea said.
“They’re looking at dikes, levees, bridges and roads,” he said.
Water continues to spill over levees and dikes along the Snohomish River, flooding homes, farms and roads.
On a tour of flood-ravaged Snohomish this morning, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she’ll seek federal funding to help clean up.
Murray went to Snohomish with local politicians for a quick briefing. As the entourage neared a flooded neighborhood on the east side of town near the confluence of the Pilchuck and Snohomish rivers, one man came onto his porch and yelled, “Do you want to buy some lakefront property?”
Murray planned to tour southwest Washington this afternoon with Gov. Chris Gregoire. The senator said she’s already been in contact with top federal transportation officials to make sure they know that federal assistance likely will be necessary.
Murray said the devastation caused by the flooding is a visual reminder that federal money for improving the economy and enhancing the nation’s infrastructure also must be directed toward shoring up the system of levees that protect people and businesses in communities along rivers.
“The human impact is the first thing I think of when I look out at the families watching from their (flooded) homes,” Murray said.
Highway 9 remains closed at Snohomish, and traffic was tangled this morning along the U.S. 2 trestle and in Marysville as people sought alternate routes. Washington State Patrol Trooper Keith Leary said there is no telling when the highway will reopen.
Leary is advising motorists to plan an alternate route for the evening commute. A clip of the Marysville-based trooper showed up on national news coverage of the flooding this morning, along with the Snohomish County sheriff’s office rescue efforts.
Traffic also was slower than normal on eastbound U.S. 2 with a steady stream of semi-trucks. The highway has been the only east-west route open across the state. Eastbound I-90 opened this morning and the westbound lanes are expected to open by noon. A 20-mile stretch of I-5 closed down in Lewis County by floodwaters also reopened at noon.
Since Thursday afternoon, the Snohomish River has been at 33.47 feet at Snohomish, just shy of the 33.5 feet record, according to Mike McFarland, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. With water constantly gushing over levees, he said the river is basically as high as it can get.
“Waters are flowing over and flooding the valley,” he said. “When water starts to reach its theoretical maximum, it kind of flows over the dikes and it can’t get any worse. The Snohomish Valley is about as worse as it can get.”
Snohomish city officials are concerned about an apparent water main break along the Pilchuck River, said city manager Larry Bauman. City workers can’t confirm that because the water is too high.
“Much of the line runs along banks we can’t get to,” Bauman said.
The city issued a boil water notice to 93 customers affected by the apparent break. Machias Elementary School also is affected but it’s closed today.
Most of the levees appear to be holding, he said. Now, officials are looking ahead to a slow drop in water levels, a process that could last into Saturday if the rain doesn’t start again, he said.
“We have staff out there keeping an eye on things,” he said. “As the water recedes that when see start to see problems reveal themselves.”
Portions of the city’s trail system and parks are underwater and much of the area could be battered by debris or scoured by river waters, he said.
Late Thursday, diking district officials decided to stop plugging leaks with sandbags along a breached dike on Ebey Island. Concerned for workers safety, they are allowing the area to flood. This morning, the Army Corps. of Engineers has decided to try to plug the holes with mixed rock.
The operation is expected to take 24 hours and Ebey Island’s 140 residents still are encouraged to evacuate, county spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said. They should prepare for as many as five days away from home.
Evacuees hunkered down at three Red Cross emergency shelters in Snohomish County this morning. Around 33 people spent the night at a shelter in Monroe, spokesman Kris Krischano said. He expects that shelter may swell today with people evacuating Ebey Island. Four people spent the night at a shelter in Stanwood and two evacuees were at the Arlington shelter this morning. The Arlington shelter is expected to close at 2 p.m. today. The shelters in Stanwood and Monroe will remain open.
People displaced by flooding along the Stillaguamish River were seeing some relief today.
More than 200 residents from Josephine Sunset Home who were forced to evacuate because of flooding were being returned to the retirement home this morning after spending two nights at shelter set up at Stanwood High School.
Stanwood city officials this morning also have canceled a voluntary evacuation advisory and are encouraging residents to return to their homes.
“We’ve held the water and the high-water threat has passed. People can return to their homes and get on with their lives,” said Mike Simmons, the emergency manager for Stanwood-Camano Island Fire Department.
The water remains high but officials are seeing it recede a bit. They plan to continue to keep barriers up that were erected to protect Highway 532 and a residential area in town. The water is expected to stick around.
“There’s so much water in the Stillaguamish Valley and were at the bottom end. The water is going to be here awhile,” Simmons said.
Piles of dirt and sandbags kept water out of the city, but it also prevented Burlington Northern trains from operating. Stanwood Fire Chief Mike Ganz said he is examining the situation and wants to try to clear the tracks so Burlington Northern can resume service.
Though flood waters crept into the Stanwood sewer plant offices, the water supply was never compromised and the plant has been running without problems, Ganz said.
“We’re breathing a lot easier,” Ganz said. “Everybody’s a little tired, but we think we’re out of the woods. People can come back home.”
A break in the rain today should slow flooding, McFarland said. One to two inches of rain is expected in the mountains on Saturday and on Sunday the Snohomish River should drop below flood level, he said. Even with a reprieve in the rain, standing water will take a while to slowly drain.