MOUNT VERNON — The swollen Skagit River apparently crested early Tuesday without serious damage to this scenic town, where residents and sightseers strolled along a recently constructed wall that held back waters running fast at nearly nine feet above flood stage.
Officials reported no loss of life and said everyone was accounted for as the height of the river was measured about 5 a.m. at 36.98 feet, just inches below the 1990 record of 37.4 feet. That year, at least two people died and damages were measured in the millions of dollars, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The river is considered to be in flood stage when it reaches 28 feet.
Areas north of Mount Vernon were not as fortunate. A Whatcom County man was swept away by floodwaters Monday morning as heavy rains lashed Western Washington.
Everson police said Jose Garcia, 59, had reportedly driven on a road that was closed off by flooding while on his way to work. His son said the family received a call from his father, as he was clinging onto trees or bushes, when the call disconnected.
Crews continued to search for Garcia into Tuesday evening.
A motorist was injured after a tree fell on their vehicle in Bellingham, which absorbed 4 1/2 inches of rain in 36 hours. Roads Tuesday were still inundated by Lake Whatcom and Whatcom Creek, deep enough for some stand-up paddleboarders to travel.
In Mount Vernon on Tuesday, thanks to construction of a $30 million flood wall completed in 2016, the swift-running Skagit River — almost a mile across in some areas — was a tourist attraction for many, although flood damage above and below Mount Vernon will likely be substantial but isolated, said city project manager Peter Donovan.
“You see people strolling along the wall, drinking coffee and watching the river go by,” Donovan said. “We are seeing some water over roads and there is damage, but nothing compared to years gone by and what we’re seeing elsewhere.”
He added: “The river wall has been a pretty big success,” noting that downtown Mount Vernon would be under feet of water without it. “I was here in 2003, and it was a complete panic.”
There were some tense moments Tuesday morning, particularly when a bulge was reported in a dike near River Bend Road, prompting the city to order an evacuation of an industrial park and business area that included a Walmart. The evacuation order was lifted a few hours later, after it was determined the dike was stable, Donovan said.
Upriver, the river was measured at 31.6 feet at the town of Concrete, where flood stage is also 28 feet. According to the Skagit County Natural Resources Division, the river was rising slightly there as water was slowly released from the three hydroelectric dams that feed the Skagit: Diablo, Ross and Gorge.
The river level at Mount Vernon was stable and falling slightly, according to the division’s flooding hotline.
Skagit County spokesperson Laura Han said the river continues to run very fast and on Monday night, debris damaged a device suspended from the Division Street Bridge that measures the river’s depth. The device was fixed; however, the bridge was closed to foot and vehicle traffic. Residents living on the west side of the river were asked to consider evacuating.
“So far, so good, but we are not out of the woods quite yet,” Han said Tuesday.
Traffic was clogged along the Interstate 5 corridor through Mount Vernon after the freeway was closed for more than an hour as the Washington State Patrol investigated and cleared wreckage from an accident on the bridge spanning the Skagit River just north of town. The WSP said the accident was spectacular — a semitrailer ran up the back of a passenger car, folding it in half and crushing it — however, no serious injuries were reported, the WSP said.
Neighbors across northwest Washington state will turn their labors toward repairing their communities Wednesday, after swollen streams flooded lowland towns and carried filthy stormwater into Puget Sound.
There were more than 500 rescues and evacuations reported in the Sumas area, including stalled motorists. Gov. Jay Inslee and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Singh Sidhu issued disaster declarations to help steer aid to damaged areas.
An estimated 75% of homes in Sumas sustained water damage, a dozen train cars derailed and electric power stopped in what officials from the border town of 1,300 people called a devastating event. City Hall is full of water. Highway 9 and its Canadian border crossing remained closed.
One person was confirmed killed by a mudslide north of Vancouver, B.C., while 7,000 people were ordered to evacuate the interior city of Merritt when floods inundated the sewage treatment plant, CBC reported.
Mostly clear skies are predicted for the next several days, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike McFarland. A possible quarter-inch of rain could fall late Thursday, but that’s hydrologically insignificant after the region endured two “atmospheric rivers” of rain, he said.
The Skagit flood warning remains in effect until Thursday night, because massive volumes of water in the Cascades and foothills will take a while to drain. Dams on the Skagit controlled significant runoff, “but with the reservoirs near maximum pool levels, that water must start being released,” the warning says.
“Bad things can still happen,” McFarland said. “It’s too early to relax if you’re anywhere around the Skagit and the Nooksack rivers.”
Seattle Times reporters Christine Clarridge and Daisy Zavala contributed to this story.