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caption: Justin Iwasaki (right) and other staff of the Lummi Tribal Health Clinic prepare to board police boats at Bellingham's Squalicum Harbor to get to the Lummi Reservation on Nov. 17. 
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Justin Iwasaki (right) and other staff of the Lummi Tribal Health Clinic prepare to board police boats at Bellingham's Squalicum Harbor to get to the Lummi Reservation on Nov. 17.
Credit: courtesy Lummi Communications / David Webster

Lummi tribe improvises as flooding turns its reservation into an island

Rising floodwaters following two days of intense rain cut off the Lummi Reservation near Bellingham from the outside world.

Both roads leading to the reservation were inundated by the Nooksack River Tuesday afternoon.

“It pretty much turned us into an island out here,” Lummi tribal chair William Jones Jr. said. “We have no way out unless we have to drive through the flood.”

Several tribal members tried unsuccessfully to drive over flooded roadways and got stuck. Others yelled at tribal traffic flaggers for stopping more drivers from attempting the same.

But the flooding that caused widespread destruction in northwestern Washington and southern British Columbia couldn’t stop the tribe from providing food or health care to its people.

The Lummi Nation got around its temporary status as an island nation with police boats and a dump truck.

To keep the reservation’s convenience store stocked with food, Lummi officials shuttled provisions across the flood waters in a dump truck.

“We have one store on our reservation here, and it runs out of stock pretty fast,” Jones said.

By early Wednesday afternoon, the Lummi Mini Mart was restocked with eggs, dairy, and other foodstuffs.

“They're able to get through with the bigger dump truck vehicles,” Jones said.

The tribe’s commodities office offered emergency food boxes, diapers, and fireplace logs and served outdoor lunch to those in need. The office also delivered 80 bagged lunches to people stranded at the tribe’s Silver Reef Casino.

Some Lummi fishermen trying to get to their crab boat docked in Blaine got stuck driving across a submerged stretch of road leaving the reservation. Jones said their truck then caught fire.

Luckily for the fishermen, the dump truck was still there, and they were able to catch a lift on it back to dry land.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, and a pharmacist trying to get to their jobs at the Lummi Tribal Health Center took a different route.

A pair of Lummi Police boats ferried the health care workers across Bellingham Bay to the clinic from Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham, about a 25-minute ride.

“We're fortunate enough to have access to boats. So we boated in 10 health care staff this morning,” clinic physician Justin Iwasaki said.

Iwasaki said the clinic had a skeleton crew on the ground, with other providers doing virtual appointments.

The Lummi clinic serves 5,000 Native Americans throughout Whatcom County, but most patients live on the Lummi Reservation.

“We're right in the middle of the pandemic here, and we're right in the middle of flu season and cold season, so we have a lot of sick children and our elders that we have to take care of,” Jones said.

Iwasaki said without the special boat run, many Lummi tribal members would have been cut off from health care and crucial medications.

“People would not have had access to essential medicines today because we are the pharmacy for the majority of the community,” he said.

Jones said about a dozen families had to evacuate their homes on the reservation. At least a few of the homes and several vehicles are a total loss.

According to the National Weather Service, the flood followed the rainiest stretch of weather on record in the Bellingham area.

“There's never been a wetter five days in Bellingham,” National Weather Service meteorologist Mike McFarland said.

According to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey, flows in the Nooksack River reached record levels following the storm.

Upriver from the reservation, extreme conditions in creeks and rivers damaged the habitats that salmon and the salmon-centered culture of the Lummi people depend on.

“It’s inevitable that nearly every single Chinook and pink salmon redd [nest] in the Nooksack Basin was destroyed from the extreme flood event,” Tom Chance with the Lummi Natural Resources Department said in an email.

“There have been few flood events ever approaching the devastation of what we witnessed this year,” the biologist said.

Despite the return of sunny skies, roads to the Lummi Reservation remained flooded Thursday morning, according to tribal officials.

“It's a lot of farmland out here,” Jones said. “And once the fields get saturated, the water has nowhere else to go from there. It just sits there.”

The floodwaters that stranded the Lummi Reservation and its population of about 5,600 people also further isolated the 900 residents of Lummi Island. They are connected to the mainland by a Whatcom County ferry that docks on the reservation. Island residents were told to shelter in place on Tuesday.

Tribal chair Jones said he’s happy Lummi people were so resilient in an emergency.

The police boat that ferried Iwasaki and other health care workers to the reservation was the Lengesot, the word for a Lummi value translated as "we take care of ourselves, watch out for ourselves, and love and take care of each other."

Iwasaki said the medical team’s saltwater commute across Bellingham Bay was smooth and calm.

“The weather was on our side today,” he said.