Recovery aimed at struggling residents

Housing remains an issue for people in western Washington hit by last year's flooding.

BY HEATHER MOYER | MORTON, Wash. | July 3, 2007

Severe flooding hit 24 Washington counties in November.
Credit: David Isom

Associated Ministries replaced a woman's trailer that was destroyed in last year's flooding.
Credit: David Isom

For residents in western Washington struggling to make ends meet, severe flooding last November was the straw that broke the camel's back, according to long-term recovery workers.

"A lot of these families did not have insurance," said Toni Nelson, a social worker for White Pass Community Services Coalition in Lewis County. "After the flood hit, some lived in houses that no one should have been living in because they had no other options."

She said that many of the people helped by her organization live on fixed incomes and in homes that were already worse for the wear.

The flooding destroyed 177 homes, severely damaged another 206 and left 572 others with minor damage. More than 24 counties were affected and 11 received individual assistance declarations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nelson said Lewis County was rural, which leads to housing availability issues as well as issues with landlords. Assisting renters who were affected has been a challenge, she said.

"Many of the landlords were living in the same flood plain as the homes they rent out, so they were hit, too," Nelson said. "Some of them can't afford to do fixes on their own homes."

Nelson and her organization worked with the long-term recovery committee for the county in identifying 315 families in need after the flood. She is still helping at least 40 of them, many of whom continue to live with families or friends as they wait for housing.

Home repairs for many residents have been delayed because sunny days in the area are few and far between, she said.

"There is still rebuilding because everybody's waiting for the sun to be out long enough to dry out and get started," Nelson said.

In addition to the property damage toll, there was also the human toll, Nelson noted.

Some people, she said, have been forced back into unsafe personal situations that they had escaped before the flooding. She said she has seen several people who had "broken the cycle of violence" before the flood move back in with abusive family members because they had nowhere else to go.

"Where do you go?" she asked. "You want to get your kids or yourself safe and dry - but you lost your home."

Michel Phillips of the Snohomish County's Sky Valley Disaster Relief Committee (SVDRC) said those still in need were challenging cases.

"I think the biggest need we're still seeing is people who are not really eligible for assistance, but need assistance based on the fact that they didn't own the land they lived on," said Phillips, the committee's secretary.

The organization was helping residents with uncovered issues, such as paying for mobile home title transfers and providing cleanup crews. The committee continues to get requests for help. The hardest hit town in Snohomish County was Sultan, where a mobile home park along the river was demolished.

The Rev. David Isom of Associated Ministries in Pierce County said the agency was handling 50 cases, many of which also involve people trying to replace or repair damaged mobile homes.

"One mobile home park in Sumner said 32 homes destroyed," Isom said. "We're still working with some families even now to find housing, including one disabled senior citizen couple still living in a hotel."

Associated Ministries replaced one mobile home for a woman and, like SVDRC, was helping pay for things not covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency funding or insurance as well as assisting those who got help from neither of those sources.

"People are tired and weary," Isom said. "We've made sure counseling is available. Sometimes just having someone you can talk to in the midst of all this is helpful."

The best way to help is still financial donations, responders said. Funding can be earmarked for specific needs, said Lewis County's Nelson, from buying new appliances to helping residents with transportation issues due to having lost their cars to the flood.

"Undesignated funds are very helpful," she added.

While the long-term recovery committees said the flooding was not as bad as in 2003, many said the latest flooding prompted them to establish a more permanent preparedness plan.

"We will get a 501(c)(3) this time so that next we will really be in place," said the Rev. Tom Ross, chairman of the Skagit County Interfaith Disaster Recovery Organization.

Ross said his organization helped several families affected in November by doing mental health referrals and also paying for uncovered items.

Phillips of Snohomish County echoed Ross.

"We're trying to make sure that the next time this happens we'll be more available and prepared at the onset instead of pulling together an organization after the fact," Phillips said.

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