MOUNT VERNON — Al Lyons remembers stacking sandbags as high as his chin during past flooding in downtown Mount Vernon.
Lyons, who opened Lyons Furniture in 1993, said he placed no sandbags around his store during last week’s near-record flooding. He was confident the downtown floodwall would hold back a surging Skagit River.
“It was miraculous,” he said. “(The floodwall) did everything it was supposed to do, and I couldn’t have been happier.”
The floodwall — completed in 2018 — survived its first major test last week, preventing potentially devastating downtown flooding.
The Skagit River crested at 36.9 feet early Tuesday morning — the second worst flooding in Mount Vernon since 1990, when the river crested at 37.4 feet, according to historical record.
Other downtown business owners say they are thrilled and relieved the floodwall performed so well.
“The difference between (past) severe floods and this one was literally night and day,” said John Stowe, owner of Work Outfitters. “So big kudos to the floodwall and to the Mount Vernon crew. I was very happy with the situation.”
Dan Wilson, an employee for 27 years at Strauss Jewelers, said the floodwall helped the shop re-open sooner than it otherwise would have.
“We were back in business Tuesday,” he said. “There’s no way that would have happened had the wall not been there.”
Lyons said he was impressed with how quickly the floodwall was assembled.
“The city should be complimented for it,” he said.
City spokesperson Peter Donovan said the city started putting up the floodwall ahead of last weekend after seeing minor — then major — flooding in the forecast.
First, crews installed galvanized steel posts in sections along the Skagit Riverwalk. Next, they stacked horizontal aluminum panels in gaps along the brick wall on the riverwalk.
Donovan said it took a crew of 10 street maintenance employees about 16 hours to install the panels. At that height, the wall could hold back water up to 38 feet.
With the river still rising, the city decided — for the first time — to install an additional 3 feet of panels along the entire 1.7-mile wall.
Donovan said the city recruited 10 more employees, five from the parks department and five from the fire department, to complete the job. That took another 16 hours.
With the extra height, the wall could hold back water up to 41 feet — just 4 feet higher than the eventual crest of the river.
Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau said the city was confident in the wall, though officials still had concerns about how it would actually work during a flood.
“We were thrilled that it worked as it was engineered,” she said.
Three mayors — Boudreau and past mayors Bud Norris and Skye Richendrfer — worked to get the floodwall done. It was built in partnership with Dike District 3.
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited with local and state officials and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representatives to discuss the success of the project.
In 2005, Murray helped secure $200,000 in federal funds to study flood protection in downtown Mount Vernon.
“I did not know that years later I would be standing here and see a downtown that was saved because of this wall behind me,” Murray said in remarks to the press.
She said funding in the infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last week will pay for more projects to protect communities from disasters.
In the short term, Murray said Gov. Jay Inslee is pursuing a federal disaster declaration to help get aid to areas devastated by the flooding.
As water levels started to recede late last week, city crews began dissembling the floodwall and cleaning up the silt the river had brought onto the riverwalk. The city expects to re-open the riverwalk early this week.
While the floodwall has helped protect downtown residents and businesses, the hope is that it will also drive economic investment.
The project’s completion resulted in 223 buildings being removed from the floodplain and a 40% reduction in flood insurance premiums, according to a graphic from FEMA.
“It’s a huge economic tool for the future of our city,” Boudreau said.