Comment: North Sound families need aid after flooding, cold

Generous donors have stepped forward, but more help and better coordination are needed to recover.

By Liz Baxter / For The Herald

At North Sound Accountable Communities of Health, our team starts by acknowledging that we are on the traditional homelands of the People of the Salish Sea, since time immemorial. They guide and teach us, sharing their wisdom.

We’re wondering what guidance they may give now as we fight another crisis. When the river rises, flooding your home; when traditional emergency shelter could expose you and your loved ones to a deadly virus, how can we respond in a way that shows that we care for those around us? Especially when the crisis systems have been running at full speed for close to two years, trying to help individuals, families, businesses and schools stay safe.

The North Sound region, especially Whatcom County, has been hit again. In November 2021, an atmospheric river system flooded previously safe houses in Sumas, Nooksack, Everson, Lynden, Ferndale, and other areas of north and east Whatcom County, as well as the fields of Skagit Valley. Close to 2,000 homes are now unsafe to live in, in a region already struggling with affordable housing.

Shazia Khan and her family of five lost their home in Sumas. “We lost almost all of our belongings that were in our downstairs portion of our apartment. We lost furniture, pictures. My fiancé and I lost our bed that we were still paying on. We lost food and many other things.”

Khan’s family has been living in a hotel until they can move into a new apartment, which was difficult to find.

When the waters receded, and the mucking out began, that was just one step of many toward recovery. Homes that were flooded are now stripped of their contents: washing machines, refrigerators, furniture, insulation, flooring, cars and trucks, clothes and medicine. Families have been staying on a friend’s couch or floor. Many were without their homes during the holidays. Kids who depended on meals at school, learned the school was flooded too, damaging equipment that was utilized to support remote learning.

Some decided to live on their second, (unflooded) floor of their homes, but then the weather changed. Pipes froze and heaters faltered. We trust that the eventuality of support will come, but each day more families are asking for help.

Individuals can feel lost and powerless against the seemingly insurmountable hoops they have to go through in order to get help. We feel beholden to the systems in place; but are we?

This disaster made it more apparent than ever that we need radical change in how we respond and recover from disaster. Standing up emergency response systems rely on many assumptions; that those needing help can speak, read and write in English; that they have technological proficiency and access; that their phones will be on; that they will have patience; that they understand the role of public and private resources; and that there are people available to staff the emergency response teams.

And remember, we have been battling covid-19 since early 2020. Dollars have flowed for covid recovery, and will soon be coming for flood relief. It’s critical that we see these recoveries as connected, inter-related. Can we build a bridge to utilize recovery dollars for the work ahead to rebuild communities, and not have funds segmented by each of the disasters that we’re recovering from? It is time for unity and sharing, not separation. We need this more than ever.

Our community has unmet needs, and we are asking each and every one of you — of us — to help fill those needs. Insurance and government funding is not going to recover all that these families lost. So many stepped up to help neighbors, even as weather bore down on them. Everyone can lean in to help: elected officials, with the power of their words; volunteers, with time and hearts; foundations and donors, with your financial support. In small and big ways, community has stepped in. But help is still needed. You are still needed.

“When the flood started, we had no sense of direction and felt so overwhelmed,” Khan said. “We have been helped tremendously by the Gathering Place [in Blaine] and also Joe [a community health worker]. We are forever grateful.”

Liz Baxter is chief executive of North Sound Accountable Community of Health. Email her at communications@northsoundach.org.

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