Neighbors across Northwest Washington state will turn their labors toward repairing their communities Wednesday after swollen streams flooded lowland towns and carried filthy storm water into Puget Sound.
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.
More than 500 rescues and evacuations were reported in the Sumas area, including stalled motorists. Gov. Jay Inslee and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Singh Sidhu issued disaster declarations that should help steer aid to damaged areas.
“Our hearts are heavy today, especially for the family members who are still trying to locate their loved ones. Heavy for the hundreds of Whatcom County residents that were forced to leave their homes as water seeped through the doors and for those who may have to leave today,” said an update by state legislators Sharon Shewmake and Alicia Rule.
Electricity has been restored in most of Sumas and the town is ready to start repairs Wednesday morning, Mayor Kyle Christensen said Tuesday evening.
“We’re looking at going door-to-door, as waters go down in different parts of town,” he said. “Half is on dry ground, half has water.”
To defend against future flooding, he suggests dredging nearby streams, which he said have become shallower due to silt deposits from past floods. There’s precedent in the state’s Swift Creek Project, to remove naturally occurring asbestos from mountainside run off, reducing a public health hazard. On the other hand, he acknowledged, silt removal would fan debate about whether it aids or harms native fish.
Other options could include a giant diverter, though water volumes, Christensen said, are likely too great for it to work. A levee or trench could redirect flood water or a detention site could be built — though it would remove valuable farmland, he said.
Unlike Monday, when people were evacuated using about 20 boats, the water was too shallow for boat evacuations Tuesday. Rescuers fanned out in about 10 pieces of farm machinery. Christensen said he personally joined a crew using a front-end loader to bring people out of wet homes.
“The biggest thing for me was together with volunteers and first responders, rescuing people who had five feet of water in their house. The look on their face was worth it,” he said.
Evacuated residents were staying at temporary shelters including the Nooksack Valley High School south of town, between Sumas and Everson.
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.
Nearly all waterways, including the mighty Skagit River that wraps around Mount Vernon, crested by Tuesday morning. That city’s $30 million flood protection wall — where workers insert aluminum beams to make the promenade’s brick fence higher — saved the downtown overnight from near-record flooding.
However, 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.”
The Skagit relented from its early-Tuesday peak of 36.9 feet at 5 a.m., just shy of the record 37.4 feet in 1990. Water elevation declined to 36.2 feet by 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, still eight feet over flood stage. It’s expected to recede to 30 feet by Wednesday afternoon and normal by the weekend.
Mount Vernon got a scare Tuesday morning when a bulge appeared in a dike along Riverbend Road, just west of I-5, and officials briefly issued an evacuation order. The city reopened Division Street Bridge late Tuesday afternoon.
In Bellingham, which absorbed 4 1/2 inches of rain in 36 hours, most city streets reopened by mid-Tuesday. Iowa Street near Interstate 5 remained closed, along with Squalicum Way in the north end. Iowa Street was still inundated by Lake Whatcom and Whatcom Creek, deep enough for stand-up paddleboarders to travel. Trails near streams remained unstable, the parks department said.
The city was still calculating damage to public and private property. “We are grateful no lives were lost to flooding and falling debris,” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said in a statement.
Crews continued to search into Tuesday evening for a person who went missing after being seen in Whatcom County floodwaters. In Bellingham, a motorist was injured by a falling tree.
Interstate 5 reopened through Ferndale around 2 p.m., after standing water blocked traffic near Main Street. Mudslides kept northbound I-5 blocked along Lake Samish south of Bellingham for most of Tuesday, but all lanes at Nulle Road reopened Tuesday night.
Puget Sound Energy reported 25,239 customers still without power late Tuesday afternoon. Outages are clustered along the Skagit River, Whidbey Island, the Sumas area and around Olympia.
The governor’s emergency weather proclamation Monday extends to Clallam, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Mason, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom counties.
In British Columbia, one person was confirmed killed by a mudslide north of Vancouver, while 7,000 people were ordered to evacuate the interior city of Merritt when floods inundated the sewage treatment plant, CBC reported.
Seattle Times reporters Amanda Zhou, Christine Clarridge and Mike Carter contributed to this story.