WA town faces relocation

Moving is a trying task for anyone, but imagine the struggle to move an entire town.

BY HEATHER MOYER | HAMILTON, Wash. | April 8, 2004

Moving is a trying task for anyone, but imagine the struggle to move an entire town. That's the reality for Hamilton, a town of 500 people in the Skagit River Valley.

The area floods frequently, and the last floods in late October and November of 2003 were the most significant and damaging flooding the town had ever seen. "This last one was so bad, it appears the Skagit River is trying to relocate itself," said Anita Jackson, case manager for the Skagit Interfaith Flood Recovery (SIFR). "Nearly the whole town flooded, even those who had their homes elevated a little."

Jackson said the town, situated about 84 miles north of Seattle, has been fighting to relocate itself for some time now, and the severe November floods look to have speeded up that process. "There's a lot of new cooperation that will help the cause now," she said.

Hamilton doesn't sit in a floodplain, it actually sits in the floodway itself, said Neil Molenaar, president of the Washington Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (WAVOAD). "This is a very unique project and it does take some time," said Molenaar, who also serves at a Church World Service (CWS) Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison (DRRL).

He said that the local interfaith group and all the involved relief agencies support the community in this move. The lengthy relocation process involves waiting for a Public Development Authority (PDA) to form, the PDA finding the residents suitable land nearby, the PDA developing that land for this new town, and then annexing this new town to Hamilton to continue the needed tax base.

In the meantime, Molenaar said the current flood recovery is focusing on a different type of home repair. "We call it 'Sheltering in Place,' and that means we want to provide them with safe, sanitary homes temporarily while they wait for the relocation process," he said.

Jackson said the home repair stage is phase three of their relief help.

"Phase one was immediate cleanup of flood debris and phase two was having work crews help remove moldy drywall and insulation from the homes," she said.

The flooding affected 230 families in Hamilton. During the winter months, Jackson said they worked through the list of those who applied for assistance to determine whose needs could be met by insurance, whose called for some interfaith help, and whose required definite home repair assistance. The list is now down to 15 homes that have what Jackson calls "larger construction needs."

The home repair phase will be done with the cooperation of teams from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), and the Church of the Brethren. "It's a unique volunteer effort where these three organizations will work together on job sites - they won't each have their own teams at their own separate work sites," said Molenaar, who wears another hat as the regional manager for CRWRC. He added that they'll draw volunteers from each organization's database and they expect to generate enough volunteers from within Washington.

Molenaar and Jackson said they expect to have the repairs done by early October.

Later this summer, Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) is sending in its 'Camp Noah' program, a week-long camp for kids who've experienced disasters. "It will be a very important service to the kids in the area," said Norene Goplen, regional coordinator for LDR's Northwest region.

The cooperation isn't just evident between the major relief organizations, as the local community pulled together as well. Jackson said a local Lutheran church agreed to house SIFR's office and the local ministerial network offered their resources. "There's been a wonderful cooperation," she said.

Inter-agency cooperation is an aspect of disaster relief that Molenaar said shouldn't be challenging. So in addition to his three other titles, he's also helping create a statewide interfaith organization that can be in place for all future disasters.

"Florida, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Missouri have organizations like this," he said. "I don't want us to have to start from scratch each time, and this would allow us to react immediately."

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