Question isn’t ‘if’ but ‘how bad’ for floods

  • Sun Nov 1st, 2009 10:05pm
  • News

By Jackson Holtz and Noah Haglund Herald Writers

Heavy fall rains and mountain snowfall already are swelling Snohomish County rivers, sloshing water over low-lying roads. That’s seeping fear into those responsible for the miles of dikes and levees built to hold back flood waters.

Many in Western Washington have focused attention on the weakened Howard Hanson Dam along the Green River in King County. In Snohomish County, concerns lie with earthen levees damaged during last winter’s storms, and whether they can sustain another pummeling.

“If we have a major flood, we’re going to have a major problem,” said Everett Alexander, a commissioner with Snohomish County Diking District 1 on Ebey Island.

If the levee gives out, Ebey Island will be swamped and flood waters will be slow to recede, he said.

“We have to hope that it doesn’t give way this year,” Alexander said.

County officials also hope for a mild winter, said Mark Murphy, a spokesman for the county’s Department of Emergency Management.

“But hope’s not a method,” Murphy said, “So we’ll deal with whatever we get.”

Strong Pacific storms last week threatened the season’s first serious flooding. The National Weather Service on Wednesday issued a flood watch for a brief time in Snohomish County. The watch was canceled when the storm changed course and took aim instead at Canada.

The warning was a reminder that flood season has arrived.

Most years the Stillaguamish and Snohomish rivers spill over their banks, forcing people from their homes and often causing millions of dollars in damage.

In 2006, the Election Day floods caused more than $30 million damage. The next year, storms whipped through in early December. Last winter, raging rivers wreaked havoc just after New Year’s Day.

Here’s how it happens: Fall rains saturate the soil and that means it is like a soggy sponge, unable to absorb more water. As colder air moves in, snow begins to accumulate in the Cascade foothills. Then, warm and moist weather patterns — the notorious Pineapple Express — raise freezing levels above the mountain peaks. Accompanying heavy rains melt the fresh snow.

Rivers can’t contain the onslaught of water. The result is flooding.

Preparation is key.

Nearly three dozen officials from Snohomish County government, diking and flood control districts, the Army Corps of Engineers and others gathered in mid-October to get ready for flood season.

They discussed the 50,000 sandbags ready to be deployed. Emergency phone lists were swapped and the small jurisdictions responsible for holding water back from thousands of acres of county land updated the status of the rivers and dikes.

Most areas are in good shape, having used the summer months to restore levees and the repairs were completed just in time. Fresh grass is sprouting after seed was put down in recent weeks.

Chuck Hazelton, a commissioner with the Stillaguamish Flood Control District, blames slow-moving bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the rush to finish.

On Ebey Island, a section of levee about the length of a football field still needs repairs, Anderson said.

Fixing the levee according to county rules would have bankrupted the diking district, he said. If the waters rise, the district will have to fight flooding. A pile of rocks has been assembled, just in case.

Other trouble spots exist throughout the county.

Outside Gold Bar, a log jam along May Creek Road has all but blocked a stretch of the Wallace River. Heavy rains last week caused minor flooding for the third time this season, residents said.

County officials also fear that rising waters along May Creek could create sinkholes on the approaches to one of the bridges along May Creek Road. As a precaution, they plan to keep cars off bridge No. 559, should the creek flood.

For now, old timers in the county are relying on a traditional pastime as winter approaches.

“It’s local sport here to speculate on what the river’s going to do,” Hazelton said. He’s lived along the Stilly for nearly seven decades.

“Only mother nature knows,” he said. “The weather here never ceases to amaze me.”

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437, jholtz@heraldnet.com.

Get ready

Rivers in Snohomish County spill over their banks most years. Experts say making preparations is the best way to protect lives and minimize property loss. Some ways to be prepared:

  • Keep an emergency kit including at least water, food for family and pets, a portable radio, flashlight and a first aid kit.

    Carefully catalog belongings for insurance purposes and keep important paperwork in a waterproof box.

    Purchase flood insurance at least 30 days before flood season.

    Have sandbags ready to fill and use.

    Fill up your vehicles’ gas tank when bad weather is forecast.

    Make arrangements to leave property and designate family meeting locations. Include pets in the evacuation plans.

    Plan to move property and livestock to higher ground.

    Never try to drive through water-flooded roads.

    Tune into news reports for important weather updates and other information.

    In an emergency, call 911.

    Resources

  • Snohomish County Flood Warning and Preparedness Information: www.floods.surfacewater.info

    National Weather Service in Seattle: www.weather.gov/seattle

    Northwest River Forecast: www.nwrfc.noaa.gov

    Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management: 425-388-5088

    Flood terminology:

    Watch: Floods likely, but exact timing and location uncertain.

    Warning: Flood imminent within 12 hours.

    Stage 1: Emergency responders put on alert.

    Stage 2: Localized flooding possible. Roads covered.

    Stage 3: Numerous road closures. Levees breached. Crews sent out to monitor flooding.

    Stage 4: Major flooding and widespread damage.

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