Communities clean up after Pacific NW floods

BY SUSAN KIM | Pacific Northwest | December 30, 1998

As flood warnings are scaled down to flood watches, major highways reopen, and people return to their homes throughout western Washington and Oregon, response organizations and agencies remain on vigilant standby.

Residents are battling power outages, washed-out pastures, and roads blocked by continued mudslides and landslides throughout the area's mountain ranges.

The Oregon Emergency Management Agency (EMA) reported that high water still exists on highways -- even those that have reopened -- and that minor flooding will continue. During the past two days, the Coast Guard rescued more than 10 families along Oregon's Wilson River, but no injuries were reported.

In Washington, EMA officials defined the situation as "a recurring threat."

"We may have dodged this bullet," said King County EMA Regional Planning Coordinator Richard Gelb. "But the continuing snow melt could cause another rise in the rivers."

Forecasters predict a letup in rain and gusting winds, but not in snowmelt coming off the area’s mountain ranges. The American Red Cross reported that five people remain in shelters in western Oregon, and in Washington, Red Cross shelters remain on standby as evacuees return home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has not issued any official disaster declarations, and FEMA spokesperson Mike Howard called conditions "a worse-than-usual seasonal flooding."

"Local municipalities appear to have the situation well in hand," he said, attributing people's thorough preparation partly to the fact that they are accustomed to a rainy season and partly to more awareness from national and local media. "I think this region's flooding got increased national media attention because the media has become more sensitive to natural disasters, and part of their role in this situation has been to offer prudent preparation tips and increased awareness," he said.

As the nation watched with concern, local residents compare this year's flooding to an especially devastating one in February 1996 that killed eight people and hundreds of cattle.

Brendan Mallon, associate pastor at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tillamook, OR, said the Wilson River has already dumped as much as five feet of water, silt, and mud into Tillamook's downtown businesses. Mudslides have blocked both major highways leading into the town, and dairy farmers trying to get their cows to higher ground are concerned that delays in milking will lead to infections and ruined milk.

Blaine Colson, a member of the Tillamook Christian Church, has been stranded in town since Sunday, unable to get to his home five miles away. "Probably I’ll be able to go home today," he said. But still he insists: "Really, we're used to this here."

Tillamook's downtown businesses and homeowners will face a labor-intensive cleanup. Already, area churches and community organizations are working together to mop up and "mud out." They've done it before and they'll do it again, Mallon said. If damage turns out to be substantial, formal interfaith response committees may form. Otherwise, informal community-wide efforts will still cross denominational and organizational lines.

"That's one of the great things about Tillamook," said Mallon. "We've been through this and we know what to do. This morning I stopped by Coast Tire -- this is the 30th time they’ve been flooded since they set up shop in this town -- and there were already 15 people there with mops and hoses. Then I came to the church and the phone rang. It was someone from the Knights of Columbus. He has no connection to this church. But he was just calling to see if anybody needed help."

If businesses and residents are flooded time and time again, why don't they simply give up and leave?

Businesses remain because, floods or no floods, they've found the best locations for customers. "In Tillamook, where else would the Safeway, the gas station, the restaurants, the donut shop go? Up the mountainside?" asked Mallon.

And residents stay because this is where their families have always lived. "Communities like ours are family-oriented and farm-oriented," said the Rev. Kerry Gibson, pastor at the Skokomish Community Church in western Washington. The Skokomish is Washington state’s most oft-flooded river. "Skokomish was settled around 1900, and we have at least two families in the church that go back to that time. These people are going to stay."

"Three months a year this is a dangerous place to live. But nine months a year this is a place filled with pumpkin patches, apple trees, corn-fed cows and horses, and rich grass. You can see bald eagles in the trees. You can look right up into the Olympic Mountains. This would be the most gorgeous place in the world if people could get the flooding under control."

Help may be on the way, at least for the Skokomish River Valley. Action by community leaders from agencies, churches, civic organizations, and the Skokomish Indian Reservation had led to congressional authorization of a study by the Army Corps of Engineers to implement flood control measures that will still preserve the ecosystem.

"Over the years the damage has been very flood-specific," said Jerry Hauth, Mason County public works director. "There is not one section that's always hit harder than another when it comes to the low-lying areas."

Twenty years ago, rivers in the Pacific Northwest may have experienced less frequent flooding because silt and runoff occurred at manageable levels that allowed farmers to dredge the rivers themselves. Today farmers, logging companies, and environmentalists are locked in a political battle over what is causing the floods.

"A lot of people are pointing fingers at who's to blame," said the Rev. Jim Markus, pastor at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church in Shelton, WA. "But the bottom line is that everyone works together to help their neighbor."

Gibson said it isn't necessarily the floods that cause neighbors to work together. "Ours is the only church directly in the Skokomish community, but there are two other churches close by -- the Hood Canal Community Church and the Indian Assembly of God Church. Now these are very different churches but, in November, we all met for a praise service and we plan meet again just before Easter."

"This place is notorious for floods. So around here we network a lot. But the real story is not a story of disaster or damage but a story about determined people who live in a unique place," he said.

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