WA copes with cold weather

Freezing weather and snow are making conditions harsher for families.

BY HEATHER MOYER | SEATTLE, Wash. | November 29, 2006

The Manila Creek wildfire was burning southwest of Keller.
Credit: Gary McBride

Freezing weather and snow are making conditions harsher for families affected by the early November flooding in western Washington, said disaster responders.

A recent cold front has dumped snow, ice and freezing rain on much of the state in the past week, with another snowstorm expected Wednesday evening.

"It's a matter of getting cleaned up, but now these families are also coping with power outages, downed trees and houses that haven't even been touched since the flooding," said Neil Molenaar, a Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison in Washington. "It's freezing up here."

The early November flooding destroyed 177 homes, severely damaged another 206 and hit 572 with minor damage. More than 24 counties were affected, and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire asked for a federal declaration for 11 counties.

The hardest hit counties are Lewis and Pierce, but 13 rivers saw record cresting during the event, said a state emergency management spokesperson. "There are a number of people now facing significant damage and they don't have resources," said Rob Harper of the Washington Emergency Management Division (WEMD).

"Many are not able to find other housing, many have personal belongings destroyed. They're in tough shape. There are a number of situations like that and the snow and ice only make it worse."

Molenaar said the recovery process is on its way already in several counties with agencies that have agreed to take on leadership in a long-term recovery organization.

For counties with few service agencies or no prior disaster experience, the process will take a little longer. Molenaar is traveling to the many affected counties in order to meet with the responding agencies to either help reactivate old long-term recovery organizations or start up new ones.

"This is still in the early stages, but I'm pleased that I have commitments from some counties to develop long-term recovery programs," he said. "My goal is by the end of December to have most of these places together. They'll all need to develop various committees to manage the long-term recovery program, since one director cannot do it all. All will need support staff and teams."

Agencies in Skagit, King and Lewis counties are all moving toward the formation or reactivation of long-term recovery organizations. Molenaar is also concerned about the counties with more scattered damages, the ones he says were impacted but don't have the numbers of the state declared counties. He hopes working with the Washington chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WAVOAD) will help meet those needs.

Therese O'Brien, WAVOAD's president, said the coalition's member agencies are meeting next week to touch base on where the help is needed and how the various county recovery organizations are coping.

"I know some unmet needs will be brought to that table," said O'Brien, who works for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. "It will be a whole different situation with people who have not only been flooded, but who also now have frozen mud in their homes. That will make cleanup tougher. It's just been a nasty, nasty situation with these weather systems."

The state's Harper agreed, saying November has been one rough month for the state.

"With (Wednesday night's) snowstorm, this month will not end with a whimper, but with a parting shot of remembrance," he said. "It's been a pretty ugly month that no one wants to relive ever again."

Harper added that the flooding's damage totals could have been worse, but that previous mitigation efforts in some areas helped avoid more catastrophic damage. Molenaar hopes this recent flooding will encourage more mitigation efforts in other frequently flooded locales.

"We just know some areas that have been helped before will flood again," he explained. "We can't watch our brothers and sisters suffer like that, we've got to put some feet to the fire and get these issues mitigated and get things done. It was put on the back burner before, we can't afford to do that again."

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