A rock and mudslide briefly closed a portion of I-5 through Bellingham on Monday. There was widespread flooding in the area as storms continued in the Pacific Northwest. (Washington State Department of Transportation via AP)

A rock and mudslide briefly closed a portion of I-5 through Bellingham on Monday. There was widespread flooding in the area as storms continued in the Pacific Northwest. (Washington State Department of Transportation via AP)

One missing, 500 displaced in Whatcom floodwaters

Rain sent the Nooksack River roaring over its banks at levels not seen in more than a generation.

By Robert Mittendorf / The Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM — A man remained missing Tuesday, Nov. 16, after he was swept away by floodwaters in Everson and some 500 residents of rural northern Whatcom County fled their homes as three days of torrential rain sent the Nooksack River roaring over its banks at levels not seen in more than a generation.

A voluntary evacuation order was issued at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday as flooding remained a threat downstream toward Ferndale and the low-lying Marietta community near the river delta.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the city of Ferndale is requesting the voluntary evacuation of all residents and businesses in the area south of Main Street between Fourth Avenue and the Nooksack River, effective immediately,” the city’s notice said.

“The Nooksack River has not yet reached its crest, and the potential exists for the river to breach the existing levee. Residents and businesses are encouraged to secure and then evacuate their properties; the city will inform the public when it is safe to return. All residents outside of the voluntary evacuation area are requested to avoid any unnecessary trips and to stay off the roadways, in order for emergency and first responders to effectively respond to the emergency.”

Residents were told to leave the neighborhood north to Main Street.

Access to Ferndale from the south was blocked by floodwaters.

A temporary shelter was available at the Ferndale High School cafeteria off Golden Eagle Drive or via Shuksan Drive from Vista Drive or Washington Street.

Photos uploaded to social media showed the Nooksack River churning a muddy brown only inches below the Main Street Bridge deck.

It was the second major widespread flood event in less than two years as a similar storm hit in early 2020, and global climate change is fueling more powerful and frequent severe weather, Whatcom County officials told The Bellingham Herald.

A BNSF freight train derailed Tuesday morning in Sumas when the tracks through town were undermined.

No one was injured, Sumas Mayor Kyle Christensen told The Bellingham Herald.

“At least 20 rail cars, they’re on their side, Christensen said.

There appeared to be no immediate threat from the derailed train or its content, he said.

BNSF Railway officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for additional information.

Southbound Interstate 5 opened early Tuesday south of Bellingham after an overnight closure, but the freeway remained blocked northbound at Nulle Road because of landslide debris.

On northbound I-5 at Slater Road south of Ferndale, the freeway was closed early Tuesday because of standing water, and drivers were being detoured, the Washington State Department of Transportation tweeted.

Only one southbound lane of I-5 was open past Ferndale, with a backup of about 2 miles, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.

Flaggers were managing traffic flow, he said.

“Conditions in Whatcom County are continuing to deteriorate in many areas of the county, particularly from Lynden to the mouth of the Nooksack River,” Gargett told The Bellingham Herald in an interview Tuesday morning.

Floodwaters continued to rise downriver toward Ferndale on Tuesday, even as rain eased from a three-day Pineapple Express — a moisture-laden atmospheric river that caused landslides and packed gusty winds that toppled trees and knocked out power across Western Washington.

Some 5.57 inches of rain fell from Saturday, Nov. 13, to Monday, Nov. 15.

That’s more than the normal monthly total of 5.2 inches for November — Whatcom County’s wettest month, according to National Weather Service data.

Daily rainfall records were set for both Sunday and Monday.

Skies were expected to remain clear through Thursday, when light rain or showers are possible, according to the current forecast.

“The shower activity will taper off and end (Tuesday) afternoon with clearing skies into tonight,” according to the online forecast discussion. “Offshore flow on Wednesday will make for a chilly, but mostly clear day. Overall the weather is likely to be drier and cooler than it has been of late.”

A flood warning remained in effect as the Nooksack River was expected to crest at 23 feet in Ferndale, above major flood stage, on Tuesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service in Seattle, using estimates from the Northwest River Forecast Center.

Ferndale and Marietta were at risk of further flooding, Gargett said.

“There are no good alternative routes around Ferndale,” he said.

Downtown Ferndale had not been affected yet, he said.

About 300 more people were being evacuated from their homes in areas affected by flooding Tuesday.

Ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles were being positioned around Ferndale in strategic locations in advance of expected flooding, he said.

Nooksack River gage height was expected to drop below flood levels upstream near Nugents Corner on Tuesday, but floodwaters remained over roads, around homes and across agricultural fields in Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas.

Jose Garcia of Everson remained missing Tuesday after he was apparently swept away from floodwaters in downtown Everson as he drove to work before dawn Monday.

Scattered power outages remained Tuesday in the hardest-hit areas around Everson, Nooksack and Sumas.

Schools were closed in Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Meridan, Mount Baker and Nooksack Valley.

Western Washington University was on a normal schedule Tuesday, according to an email from John Thompson, interim director of the Office of University Communications.

Classes were canceled at Northwest Indian College but Bellingham Technical College was on a normal schedule.

Whatcom Community College’s campus was closed, but online services were available, according to a text message.

Tuesday’s print edition of The Bellingham Herald could not be delivered to Bellingham because of flooding, the freeway closure and downed trees. Tuesday’s editions will be delivered with the Wednesday papers.

Everson Mayor John Perry said damage assessments were just beginning.

“The number of homes affected by this is unknown at this time, but it’s a significant amount. Many businesses were impacted as well,” he said at the city’s Facebook page.

City Hall was flooded with about 6 inches of water, and the wastewater treatment plant was inundated by floodwaters and would remain inoperative until the water recedes.

“This means your toilets might not flush and your tubs probably won’t drain. Our water plant is still operational. We are talking with PSE to get a time frame for power to be restored,” he said.

In addition, the Everson Bridge over the Nooksack River was closed until WSDOT engineers can evaluate its integrity.

Perry said erosion was seen near the bridge approaches.

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu issued a disaster declaration Sunday, Nov. 14, for Whatcom County, allowing overtime, expenses and purchases that normally would have required prior approval.

“We are still in the midst of our emergency response, so it’s still early to really get a full sense of the situation,” Sidhu told The Bellingham Herald in an email.

‘Our first priority is making sure that the people who are in the direct path of the flooding are safe and can access the help they need. Our Division of Emergency Management team and Public Works crews are busy doing just that. It will take several days if not weeks to get a true picture of the flooding’s impact. I have reached out to all the mayors to make sure they know that Whatcom County is prepared to assist with any needs that they may have.”

A special meeting of the Whatcom County Council to discuss emergency flood relief was set for noon Wednesday.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a disaster declaration for 14 Washington counties in the Puget Sound region, including Whatcom.

Power remained out Tuesday in Sumas, where the downtown was inundated.

“Due to the high water and many public-safety concerns we will not be able to get power restored tonight. We are hoping that we will be able to restore power sometime tomorrow if possible,” the city of Sumas wrote on its Facebook page late Monday.

“It is very difficult to predict what will happen with the water levels moving forward, but we have seen some encouraging signs of the water dropping slightly in some areas of town in the last couple hours. Hopefully, that will continue to happen through the evening,” the city said.

“(On Tuesday) Tomorrow morning we will be continuing to try and gain access to our isolated citizens and offer help and support as we can,” the Facebook message said.

State Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, whose 42nd District covers northern Whatcom County, urged residents to document damages with photos and save receipts for expenses because that information could help apply for local, state and federal disaster aid.

State Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine, the district’s other House member, asked residents to avoid parts of the county affected by flooding and to obey road closure signs.

“I have been working since early (Monday) morning directly with the governor’s office and local and tribal governments to expedite and streamline any and all relief to people who are suffering the impacts of flooding,” Rule told The Herald in a text message.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene D-Kirkland, praised the efforts of Whatcom County officials and the resilience of its residents.

“My heart is with the communities and families that are being devastated by flooding across Western Washington,” BeBene told The Herald in an email.

“Climate change is making these once-in-a-generation floods a more frequent reality for our state. I am pushing to get out federal resources as soon as possible to respond to this extreme flooding but also to make the necessary investments over the long term to address the growing threat of climate change,” she said.

President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill signed Monday includes funds for communities facing rising water levels, coastal erosion and flooding as well as financial and technical assistance to reduce the risk of flood damage to homes and businesses.

Hard-hit areas of Sumas, Everson and Nooksack were only just beginning to assess damages as floodwaters slowly receded, Christensen told The Herald.

“The river is down 2 feet,” he told The Herald in an interview Tuesday. “We were just here in 2020 and it ended up a lot worse and a bigger impact. We were definitely hit hard,” Christensen said.

Christensen said some 70 homes and businesses were inundated in downtown Sumas, about double the number from January-February 2020.

About 280 people moved to shelters at Everson Elementary School, Nooksack Elementary School and North County Christ the King Church in Lynden, according to a statement from Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Shelters were being organized through the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management and run by community volunteers, the county wrote.

“Robust search and rescue efforts began early this morning and continued throughout the day. WCSO’s rescue vehicle was able to reach many residents, and boats were used in places where the water was too deep. These efforts will continue throughout the night,” according to the update.

The storm, which began dumping record amounts of rain on Whatcom County Sunday, Nov. 14, continues to lead to road and school closures.

Both directions of Interstate 5 between North Lake Samish Drive, milepost 247, and Nulle Road, milepost 245, south of Bellingham, were closed overnight due to water over the road and debris slides, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. No detour routes will be in place for these closures, WSDOT noted.

“Tomorrow morning, WSDOT will evaluate the hillside along northbound I-5 to determine the next steps. The issues on southbound I-5 are related to water over the roadway 6-8 inches deep, which WSDOT will work to address during the daylight hours tomorrow. Travelers should not attempt to go around the closures for everyone’s safety,” the Monday, Nov. 15, release stated.

Bellingham, Blaine, Lynden, Mount Baker, Ferndale and Meridian school districts canceled classes for Tuesday, according to news releases from the districts and their websites.

Nooksack Valley schools are also closed for Tuesday, according to the district’s website. Nooksack, 3333 Breckenridge Road, Everson, and Everson, 216 Everson Goshen Road, elementary schools are open as emergency shelters and were open overnight, but did not have emergency supplies.

You can help community members affected by flooding by donating through Whatcom Community Foundation’s Resilience Fund, the county wrote. A local donor and Puget Sound Energy have made matching funds available so donations this week are matched dollar for dollar, up to a combined total of $115,000. To contribute to the Resilience Fund, go online to https://bit.ly/3Ck86JW.

Lake Whatcom water order

Households that draw drinking water directly from Lake Whatcom are advised to bring their water to a rolling boil for at least a minute before consuming it after the recent storm caused a wastewater system spill. Households that have a disinfection treatment system are advised to inspect their systems to ensure they are working properly.

The 4,000 Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District customers or those that get their drinking water from the City of Bellingham are not impacted, according to a release Monday from the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District.

At approximately 6:24 a.m. Monday, the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District was alerted that wastewater was overflowing at its North Point sewer lift station near Sudden Valley due to the failure of both pumps at the station, according to the release. Crews responded and used a tanker truck to limit the amount of wastewater that overflowed, but the volume of how much overflowed is not yet known.

At 10:05 a.m., the district’s sewage detention basin was seen reaching full capacity and overflowing, and discharge flowed across Sudden Valley golf course toward Beaver Creek, according to the release. A tanker truck was again used to limit the release.

This story was originally published November 15, 2021 6:41 PM.

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