The core function of government is to protect the people it serves. As part of the 2008 budget, the Metropolitan King County Council made...

Share story

The core function of government is to protect the people it serves.

As part of the 2008 budget, the Metropolitan King County Council made the proactive decision to help protect county residents from future flood disasters. Given the topography of our region, our average annual rainfall and our susceptibility to major flooding along our county’s floodplains, an increased investment in flood protection was the right choice for our region.This past December, we were given a sneak peek at what a major disaster in our region could look like when flooding along the Chehalis River watershed damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses in addition to closing a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 for four days.

In the heaviest-hit areas, the roadway was under nearly 10 feet of water and the recommended detour added four hours and 280 miles to the drive from Seattle to Portland. Fortunately, I-5 was completely reopened within a few days, but the damage has had a lasting social and economic impact on Southwestern Washington.

King County is also at risk for major flooding. In fact, King County has already suffered through eight federal flood-disaster declarations since 1990, most recently in November of 2006.

As a nation, we witnessed the catastrophic aftermath following Hurricane Katrina. The human suffering and lasting economic damage to the entire Gulf region was unimaginable. Hurricane Katrina, along with hurricanes Rita and Wilma, combined for more than $16.5 billion in flood-insured losses. The Katrina disaster serves as a lasting reminder that government must make emergency preparedness a top priority, and that local governments must be better prepared to take responsibility in protecting the people we serve.

Protecting King County’s floodplains is a social and economic imperative for our region.

While only 2 percent of King County’s population lives in a floodplain, three times as many work in one, totaling more than 65,000 jobs. About one-fifth of the county’s economic output involves jobs in the floodplains. The cities surrounding the Green River alone make up the single-largest industrial area in the state.

Twenty percent of King County’s manufacturing jobs and 30 percent of its aerospace jobs are located in floodplains. Because of the high number of manufacturing jobs, particularly aerospace jobs, the average annual wage of workers in floodplains is 13 percent higher than the countywide average. The annual wage and salary income generated within floodplains is $3.7 billion. A one-day shutdown of businesses located there would result in more than $46 million in forgone economic activity countywide.

The short-term economic damage to our region caused by a flood disaster would be staggering, but we must also consider the long-term economic consequences of failing to prepare.

Public investment in flood-hazard management will affect where businesses choose to locate in the future. Rising land values in King County require our region to preserve and protect these areas, or else we stand to lose family-wage jobs to other counties or to out-of-state relocations.

A loss in aerospace employment within the floodplain would negatively impact personal-income growth in King County and increase rates of unemployment in the entire Puget Sound region. A 10-percent drop in aerospace employment in our floodplains could cost more than $160 million in personal income in King County.

Flooding causes more damage than any other weather-related event in the United States, with an average of $4.6 billion spent on recovery each year. According to the National Flood Insurance Program, your home has a 26-percent chance of being damaged by a flood, compared with a 9-percent chance by fire.

This year, King County residents will provide an additional $32 million to rebuild and maintain the county’s aging system of 500 levees and hardened embankments that safeguard residents, businesses, public infrastructure and roads. This investment will help protect our region from billions of dollars in potential loss and damage that could occur if the danger is ignored.

Too often, government is reactive instead of proactive. As a region, we must take these proactive steps now to avoid physical and economic harm later.

As we have seen, the consequences of being unprepared are just too high.

Pete von Reichbauer is King County councilman for District 7, which includes much of South King County.