It was dark, and Mike Merrifield of Granite Falls was up to his waist in water. He struggled to hold his Dalmatian, Oreo, above the current without losing his footing.
The Stillaguamish River was up — way up. Higher than he ever had seen it before.
As a safety precaution, his partner, Melanie Devine, was tethered to Merrifield by Oreo’s leash. Repeat trips moving their 5-year-old daughter, Madison, two cats and last-minute personal items had shown the best path was through slower water behind some trees. But in the confusion, Devine, who is hearing impaired, stepped into the stronger current.
Man, dog and Devine all wound up struggling to stay up upright and reach safety.
"It was a little exciting," Merrifield said.
Despite hair-raising experiences such as Merrifield’s, people continue to want to live near rivers, because the views are spectacular and land can be cheaper. Even though the danger of flooding is great, Snohomish County officials say it’s hard to turn people away from building near rivers because of private property rights.
Evacuation scenes similar to Merrifield’s took place that night up and down their street in the Blue Spruce neighborhood and across the river in Indian Summer, north of Granite Falls.
By the time the flooding South Fork Stillaguamish River crested later that evening, Oct. 20, 2003, water was spurting around doorknobs, barging through living rooms and rampaging across hundreds of acres of north Snohomish County. It left behind an estimated $1 million in damages.
Flooding around Granite Falls is nothing new. The land bears witness that it has been going on for eons. County officials concede that high water will continue to shape the landscape despite tougher development regulations designed to protect homes.
"I’ve seen the water go through some of those houses three times," said Tom Rowe, a technical adviser for the county’s Planning and Development Services.
But that hasn’t stopped development.
Since 1995, more than 1,100 permits have been issued for building and grading projects in the county’s flood-prone areas, a computer analysis by The Herald found. The projects included more than 300 single-family homes and nearly 100 double-wide mobile homes.
More than 170 permits were issued for projects on properties that are crossed by part of a river’s floodway. That is the place where floodwaters are known to move the swiftest and pose the most danger to lives and property. By law, development within floodways is prohibited.
Despite the problems, the county has earned praise from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for cracking down on floodway development. The county "has established a very good flood-plain management program, and … the program is in the hands of very capable staff," FEMA administrator George Currin said in a February 2003 letter.
But as recently as 1998, a FEMA review of development in the county found 35 sites in violation of flood management rules. Many of the violations were for approving building permits in the floodway.
The problems were sufficient to prompt FEMA to warn that federal flood insurance in the county — a prerequisite for obtaining home loans in high-water areas — was in jeopardy.
Records show the warning came at the same time the county was allowing construction of many of the homes that now dot the riverside near Granite Falls. Most of the projects met county rules, but records show instances where planners were granted exemptions to build on land that otherwise couldn’t have been developed.
FEMA and others produce detailed maps charting the Stillaguamish River’s 100-year flood plain. That is the area where experts estimate there is a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. They also identify the dangerous floodway channels.
On flood-prone land outside the floodways, the county doesn’t block development but requires property owners to show that their project will stand up to high water and that it will not add to flood problems downstream.
Near Merrifield’s home, more than 100 parcels of land are right on the river. Many homes are within 50 feet of the shoreline. Some are closer.
County planners say those subdivisions probably would not be allowed so close to the river with today’s flood-plain zoning. But Indian Summer’s lots were first approved in 1960, and Blue Spruce’s in 1968.
Property owners can build as long as they stay out of the floodway, said John Roney, special projects coordinator for the county planning department.
But in some cases, the lots are so small a home cannot be located away from the river’s edge. The county, when pressed with potential lawsuits by landowners, has granted exemptions in recognition of their property rights.
"We can’t say no," Roney said.
Because rivers move, floodway maps are an imperfect tool for protecting homes. For example, Roney said he remembers visiting a spot near Skykomish after a 1990 flood where debris at a narrow choke point backed up the river and sent water swirling 40 feet above the 100-year flood plain.
One house on a hillside above the river wound up with a tree sticking out a second-story window. "If something happens, the flood plain (map) doesn’t mean a thing," Roney said.
Wayne Kelln and his neighbors on River Shore Lane in Robe have seen how the south fork of the Stillaguamish can stray. Kelln’s mobile home is next in line to be swallowed by the river. The October flood shifted the channel and took one nearby mobile home.
A lesser flood in November further eroded the tall, sandy bank and took two more lots, including one home. A large piece of asphalt from the cul-de-sac now rests on a gravel bar where it peeled off and fell. A concrete septic tank lid stares up from the river at Kelln’s back deck, which now dangles over the bank.
The entire neighborhood of several dozen homes could be threatened, depending how far the Stilly ends up migrating. Like many flood victims, Kelln said he was originally attracted by the area’s beauty. The 65-year-old bought the property as a place to retire.
"You’re always taking some chance when you buy property by the river," Kelln said. "But the potential of this happening didn’t even occur to me. Nothing like this."
Kelln said the Small Business Administration offers low-interest flood relief loans of up to $35,000, but that would not work in his case. His home was so exposed to the river it was condemned, and the lot is too small to put a house elsewhere. Now, after receiving insurance money, he still owes $68,000 for an unlivable property.
"I really hate leaving this place," he said.
Some landowners face similar risks but may not be aware of them. A few crescent-shaped ponds in the Indian Summer neighborhood are an example, said Vaughn Collins, hydraulic engineer for the county’s Surface Water Management division. Many homes there do not have riverfront property but have backyards that abut the ponds. The fear is that the river could someday try to jump back into its old channel.
Some local governments choose to remove the guesswork by restricting development in areas where the river channel has historically shifted, FEMA spokesman Mike Howard said.
Such rules go beyond the minimum federal requirements, though. And county planners get competing pressure from people who think the rules already are too restrictive.
"I think we’ve had this wild swing to the left on environmentalism," County Councilman John Koster said.
Like Kelln and others in Robe, Koster would prefer beefing up riverbanks and keeping the channel from migrating in areas where lives and property are at risk.
"The trick is, if we don’t manage our rivers, you’ll never stop that migration of rivers," Koster said.
Residents in Robe are trying to form a flood control district, which would allow them to tax themselves to build a dike.
"We tried three years ago to have (the county) do something about it," Kelln said. "Now that it’s all washed away, they’re saying, well, maybe we can do something. That’s like shutting the barn door after the horse has gone away."
Many people at Chatham Acres near Darrington wished in December 1999 that they had been allowed to bulk up their riverbank on the north fork of the Stilly. The river carved a straighter course, wiping out a house and a huge swath of land and trees.
Roughly 10 neighboring families were afraid that a similar shift upstream into an old channel would cut off their access road and threaten their homes. Many wanted to seal off the old channel with boulders and logs, but rules designed to protect streamside habitat for endangered salmon prohibit such alterations.
The residents eventually accepted a $1.6 million buyout from the county using FEMA money. Such buyouts are rare but are used in cases where flood managers fear future problems would be even more costly.
Land-use planners such as Gary Reiersgard of Snohomish County say they are caught between competing philosophies.
"If we had higher standards, there would be less damage," Reiersgard said. "But the higher the standards, the more burdens you put on the property owners."
Former Snohomish County Councilman Mike Ashley said decisions should err on the side of caution.
"If we don’t learn from our previous mistakes, we will continue to make those mistakes," Ashley said.
Koster, the man who ousted Ashley on the County Council, disagrees. We need to find creative ways to co-exist with floods in the lowlands, not make it more restrictive, he said.
"If you’re going to do that, you might as well force everybody to move out of the valley," Koster said.
It’s too late to address the zoning question in old neighborhoods, but more stringent building requirements have minimized the damage to newer homes, county officials say.
"I did not see damage going through houses we had authorized" since 1995, building official Rowe said. "A lot are designed for the water to pass through."
Snohomish County requires homeowners to elevate the lowest livable space of a home to 1 foot above the "base flood elevation." Foundations must be reinforced and have outlets for water flow, and no wiring or similar features can be put below that mark.
"Hopefully, the message is people shouldn’t be finishing those areas," Rowe said.
Sometimes they do, without permits.
"I remember visiting one home, they had put their kid’s bedroom down there. I was still in ankle-deep water, and there’s the kid sitting in his bed," Rowe said.
The feds also are concerned about unregulated development in the flood areas.
Last year, FEMA urged the county to crack down on a squatter’s camp along the Skykomish River outside Sultan. People are still there, living in dilapidated recreational vehicles, tents and sheds in what federal officials say is one of the most dangerous flood areas on the river.
"FEMA is very concerned that with the next major flood a tragedy will occur in this very dangerous subdivision," administrator Currin wrote. "Any encouragement the county can extend to these individuals to move to a safer location will certainly prevent a misfortune in the future."
Meanwhile, Joe Carrieri’s custom-built, elevated house is a prime example of how new building standards can reduce damage.
Carrieri, a carpenter, started building the house in the Blue Spruce neighborhood in 1990. The flood that year left a big impression. He followed the engineering guidelines for building in flood zones, beefing up his foundation with extra rebar and elevating the living space above the required level.
He took extra steps, too.
His simple yet ingenious flood alarm sets things in motion. The alarm is a 5-gallon bucket with a wooden float that has a copper contact on it.
When the water filled the bucket, it raised the float and connected the copper to a circuit wired to his doorbell. This came in handy when a lesser flood caught the neighborhood by surprise in the middle of the night in November. The doorbell woke up Carrieri, and he and his family alerted neighbors, including Merrifield.
"I would have lost all three of my cars," Merrifield said.
Water this year rose about a foot higher than in 1990.
"Water was squirting out of the (basement) doorknob," Carrieri said. "Obviously, I wasn’t expecting a flood that high."
Still, damage to the property was minimal, he said.
For environmentalists, what happened at places such as River Shore Lane, Blue Spruce and Indian Summer should be seen as a cautionary tale.
"It’s pretty simple — you don’t build where there’s water," said Kristin Kelly of 1,000 Friends of Washington. "Shouldn’t we have learned something by now?"
Monday: The battle over developing businesses in flood plains.
Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.