Record floods may hit Pacific NW

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington | November 8, 1999

Heavy winter rain and snow may be second nature for many Washington and Oregon residents. But this year it could be worse than usual.

And the usual has gotten bad enough -- last year, in Washington State, of the 120 days from November through February, 92 were rainy.

The second straight year of the La Nina weather phenomenon is showing its early influence. With snowfall already packing into the mountain

passes, residents are making preparations for floods, heavy seas, rain, high wind, snow melt, and whatever else nature deals out to them.

The Skokomish Valley was under a flood watch over the weekend and, in late October, one emergency shelter opened in the city of Ocean Shores,

Wash. when a coastal flood warning was issued. "But no one came in," said Rob Harper, public information officer for the Washington Office of

Emergency Management.

In the coming weeks, shelters may see more activity. "The projection is that we'll have a pretty bad winter," he said. "We are telling people to start

listening to the radio and pay attention to the media outlets."

When storms hover off the Pacific northwest coast, high winds can generate huge seas around the mouth of the Columbia River. During high tide,

inlets on the Washington coast are at high risk for flooding.

Such high seas and storm surges can damage homes and cause beach erosion.

Harper said that he recommends people in flood zone areas prepare for 72 hours of self-sufficiency with food, water, and medication. "Also they

should prepare for power outages, since that's fairly common, and they should prepare their vehicles," he added.

If the threats of flooding won't motivate people to prepare -- maybe the Y2K rollover will, he said. "Y2K is as much a reason to prepare as


And if Y2K and La Nina aren't reason enough -- perhaps an upcoming meeting of the World Trade Organization is, said Neil Molenaar, a Church

World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator.

The World Trade Organization is meeting in Seattle from Nov. 28 through Dec. 3. "Many emergency response organizations will be on alert for

possible terrorism or violence," said Molenaar.

More likely, Washington residents will have their hands full just dealing with the weather. As winter ends, snowmelt could cause flooding east of

the Cascades, said Ted Buehner, a warning coordination meteorologist with the Seattle office of the National Weather Service.

"Snow melt is not a problem west of the Cascades -- because flooding in western Washington is always from heavy rainfall -- but east of the

Cascades and beyond, the spring snow melt is a problem," he said.

This winter, he said, could bring "a tendency to have more storms."

Washington state suffered from major flooding in 1996, significant flooding in '97 and -- surprisingly -- less in '98, although last year brought

record snowfall and rainfall to many parts of the state.

"Last year, the snow came down in feet per hour," Harper remembered.

"What we will see this year is a mixture of snow in high elevations and rain in low areas," said Harper. "A bad combination can lead to flooding."

Snow is unusual in western Washington because the region is near sea level and has a temperate climate, he said.

The highest elevation in the state is Mt. Rainier, which is 14,000 feet, but most of the mountains top off at about 9,000 feet.

This could be the year for more record-breaking snowfall and rainfall, Harper said. "This is supposed to be a lively, wetter-than-normal winter, so

there is a high probability."

Response groups have been calling meetings to order, reactivating dormant phone networks, and simply encouraging people to get to know their


"We're aware that this is La Nina round two," said David Kinman, a CWS disaster resource consultant based in Oregon.

The Oregon Interfaith Disaster Recovery Network, created after 1996 floods that caused widespread damage, has not been dissolved but can be

reactivated at a moment's notice, said Kinman.

Local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) have been holding preparation meetings as has the Washington Association of


"Local VOADS are being developed in smaller geographical areas than in the past - one or two county areas," said Kinman. "It's not just

statewide coordination."

The Oregon VOAD, in cooperation with Oregon's Office of Emergency Management, has approved a plan to manage donated goods in the wake

of disaster.

In Alaska, disaster response groups are also meeting to discuss preparation as well, said Eve Reckley, another CWS disaster resource consultant.

Even while meetings are held, winter is rapidly overtaking Alaska. "We have had almost two months straight of rain which has heavily soaked the

soil. Then yesterday we had high winds, some above 100 mph on nearby mountains," she said. "There were trees toppled and some homes

damaged, but nothing of disaster proportions."

"We do anticipate a very wet -- rain and snow -- winter," she added.

"We all know it's coming," said Kinman. "What we're asking now is, how can I change things so there won't be this much damage next time?"

"The overall message is that we're ready and that we're anticipating," said Molenaar.

Elevating homes in flood-prone areas has successfully prevented damage, Kinman said. "The goal is to make the next flood a nuisance, not a


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