Worried about flood risks, Stanwood is heading for the hills

STANWOOD — Local leaders and the city’s second-largest employer are looking to the hills as the threat of flooding makes downtown an increasingly hazardous and costly place to be.

Located near the mouth of the Stillaguamish River, within reach of severe Skagit River floods, Stanwood’s entire downtown falls within a 100-year floodplain designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Recently, city officials renewed discussions about moving Stanwood City Hall and the police department to higher ground. Josephine Sunset Home, the second-largest employer in the city behind the Stanwood-Camano School District, also plans to relocate.

The city continues to work with business owners, developers and insurers to keep the historic west end of Stanwood — its downtown core — lively. Shops and restaurants are tucked into some of the oldest and most recognizable buildings in town, and downtown business vacancies left after the recession have been filled.

Protective measures like levees, dikes and sandbagging have kept downtown streets from flooding in recent years, city administrator Deborah Knight said. Other projects are in the works to bolster protection around downtown. A walking path built on a berm is planned at a low point along Highway 532, and city officials aim to create a flood education program that will kick off next year.

Still, business and development is shifting toward the east half of the city, uphill from the floodplain. That area may not have the charm of historic Stanwood, but it’s off the river delta.

Stanwood’s higher ground used to be farmland, local historian Karen Prasse said. Commercial development began about 20 years ago, mostly along Lindstrom Road near the Haggen Food &Pharmacy.

“Stanwood is a small town with barriers to growth,” Prasse said. “It’s the only place they can really grow to.”

Up the hill or farther

Josephine Sunset Home plans to move somewhere staff won’t have to evacuate every time the river rises.

“What complicates things for us is when the Stilly runs over south of us in Silvana, we have to move our residents because it’s too precarious,” CEO Terry Robertson said. “We have to move 250 elderly people out of their beds.”

Residents are gradually moved early during a flood threat, because a rushed evacuation could be fatal for those with severe medical conditions.

Josephine – with its 160-bed nursing home and 57 assisted-living apartments – has been evacuated at least twice in the last eight years, in 2009 and 2006.

Residents stay in the Stanwood High School gym for two or three days. That’s less than ideal for people who need specialized care or have compromised immune systems. They sleep on cots next to each other, the only privacy supplied by hanging sheets or curtains.

As a result, the Christian-based care organization will be moving out of the place they’ve been since 1908, Robertson said. The goal is to relocate within five years.

He hopes to stay in Stanwood, where Josephine Old People’s Home was founded. There’s some acreage uphill near the Haggen store where they might be able to build, but it depends on utility access and zoning.

If that parcel doesn’t work out, the organization owns nine acres near the Costco in Smokey Point, which means they would be taking the core of their operations out of town.

The existing facility likely will continue serving as a day care for children and adults, or it could be converted into independent-living senior apartments, Robertson said.

Some ask why the existing building at 9901 272nd Place NW can’t be elevated or otherwise flood-proofed, but that wouldn’t solve the problem, he said. Residents would still need to leave if streets around the building are inundated, which would cut them off from emergency services.

“That’s just a nonstarter,” Robertson said. “We’re not going to build another facility here.”

The floodplain is no place for critical facilities such as hospitals or care centers, he said.

Hubs for public services also can be considered critical facilities.

That’s why Stanwood City Councilman Rob Johnson has made relocating Stanwood’s city hall and police department one of his highest priorities. He has 18 years of experience working as a reservist with FEMA and specializes in floodplain management.

“I’ve seen this,” Johnson said. “I haven’t just read about it. I’ve walked into cities where the city hall and police department were wiped out by a flood, and I don’t ever want to see Stanwood be that city.”

Steep cost of low ground

It’s not just about safety. It’s about cost.

Snohomish County has been part of the National Flood Insurance Program since 1984, which means the county enforces specific federal development requirements. In return, the federal government makes flood insurance available for homeowners and business owners.

One requirement is that new construction or renovations exceeding 50 percent of a building’s value must be flood-proofed. That’s usually done by elevating the structure.

Stanwood City Hall hits the 50 percent limit at $192,000. Any improvements costing more than that would require raising the building about 8 feet, Community Development Director Ryan Larsen said.

The city aims to renovate the building at 10220 270th St. NW, which was built in 1939 and overhauled in the 1960s. It’s overdue for updates to the Community Development Department, Finance Department, meeting room, restrooms, floors, paint and fixtures.

However, the city council in September rejected all bids for remodeling the building because cost estimates came in at $303,000 or more. And that’s for a scaled-back project – a full renovation would cost about $620,000, and elevating the building would require up to $1.25 million more.

Raising a building presents other problems, as well, Johnson said.

“The dilemma here in the Northwest is when you elevate in the floodplain, which has very soft soils, you increase your risk in an earthquake,” he said.

Building a new city hall outside of the floodplain is a long-term endeavor, Knight said. So planning needs to start now.

The police station, 8727 271 St. NW, is also in the floodplain, and it’s unlikely city officials could flood proof it even if they wanted to. The water table is too high, meaning the soils below the station can become quickly saturated with water.

“They can protect it from surrounding water, but not from water bubbling up underneath,” Knight said.

The police department is slated to be updated without exceeding 50 percent of its value, but that’s a temporary solution. The long-term goal is to move it to higher ground.

High-stakes gambling

Flood season is around the corner, typically peaking between November and February.

Major flooding occurs every three to five years, particularly along the Snohomish, Skykomish, Sauk, Pilchuck and Stillaguamish rivers.

The last major flood was between Arlington and Darrington after the March 22 Oso mudslide blocked the North Fork Stillaguamish River. Widespread flooding also swept large areas in 2009, including the outskirts of Stanwood, in 2009.

This year, the Stillaguamish River is more unpredictable than usual, according to county experts. An estimated 10 million cubic yards of debris from the Oso mudslide changed the landscape and floodplain. Researchers expect the river will continue change and transform the floodplain. The county has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor sediment in the Stilly at locations upstream of the slide, in the slide zone and at the mouth of the river near Stanwood. It will be hard to determine the impact on the river’s behavior until after the coming flood season, according to the USGS.

The right — or wrong — combination of sediment, snowmelt, rain and tides could trigger a flood that would soak Stanwood.

The Snow Goose Bookstore has been downtown for 32 years, and Tom Bird has seen it come close to flooding multiple times in his 16 years as co-owner. Several years ago, he watched water-covered fields near Stanwood drain as the river rose and the tide receded. His store, a short stroll from the railroad tracks where sandbags had been laid down as a precaution, narrowly escaped inundation.

“The only thing that saved us was that the tide had gone out when the river hit Stanwood,” Bird said.

It’s not far-fetched to think that the tides some day will be rising when the flooding river crests.

“Long-term, it’s going to affect the whole town,” he said. “And not just Stanwood, other communities. But Stanwood is built on an old riverbed, so what do you expect?”

People tend to think that flooding only happens every few years, and that large floods are decades apart, Johnson said. That can be a dangerous mind-set.

“Floods can happen back-to-back,” he said. “That’s just the nature of Mother Nature. You can’t say it flooded last year, so it won’t this year.”

He compared flooding to a slot machine. The person playing the game pulls the lever, and their fate relies on a random combination of symbols. If all the sevens line up, they might win big. And in Stanwood, if all of the environmental factors line up — the snow, the sediment, the rain and the tide — they might lose big.

Bird and some other business owners are willing to take the risk. The average cost of flood insurance for a home in a Snohomish County floodplain is $904 annually, according to the county. But flood insurance for businesses can add up to thousands of dollars each year, and small businesses can’t always fit it in the budget, Bird said.

“For those of us who don’t have flood insurance, it’s a gamble,” he said. “If it floods one of us, it’ll flood all of us.”

Kari Bray: kbray@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3439

The city of Stanwood recommends eight steps to prepare for flooding.

1. Get flood insurance

2. Have supplies ready, including sandbags, plastic sheeting and portable pumps

3. Store important documents and valuable objects out of the water’s reach or in a watertight safe

4. Elevate or relocate utilities

5. Install backflow prevention devices in sewer connections

6. Put flood shields on doors and other openings

7. Get a sump pump with backup power for crawl spaces or basements

8. Reduce foundation damage by putting in openings that allow floodwaters to pass through the bottom of the building

For 24-hour Stillaguamish River flooding information, call 425-388-3702 or visit www.gismaps.snoco.org/fws

To learn more about sandbagging and flood-preparedness, or to report non-emergency flooding or drainage problems in Stanwood, contact Stanwood Public Works at 360-629-9781 or visit www.ci.stanwood.wa.us/publicworks

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