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caption: The flooded Nooksack River in Whatcom County on Nov. 16, with the San Juan Islands in the background
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The flooded Nooksack River in Whatcom County on Nov. 16, with the San Juan Islands in the background
Credit: Whatcom County Govt.

Whatcom County, in recovery, braces for more floods

FEMA is setting up in Whatcom County after the November floods wreaked havoc on neighborhoods, destroyed homes and businesses, and killed one man. But, February is also a big flood month for Whatcom County.

While whole towns recover, they are also preparing for the next potential flood.

"February is coming," shouts a Whatcom County resident at a community meeting. "You need to prevent this from happening right now."

It was November then and an estimated 85% of homes were damaged by floods. Today, residents are still struggling to rebuild.

“Seventy-five percent of the homes that were flooded in November are still not being lived in,” says Kyle Christensen, the Whatcom County Recovery Manager.

Christensen is also the former mayor of Sumas, Washington.

He says that a lack of resources and the lack of contractors are posing barriers to rebuilding efforts.

Why did it take so long to get aid?

The floods began in November. But aid came in January when President Biden signed an emergency declaration, permitting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to set up in Whatcom County.

Heavy rains and saturated soil that contributed to the event were recorded starting in late October.

On Nov. 12, severe wind and rainstorms lasting several days began to flood Clallam, Grays Harbor, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, King, Kitsap, Pierce, Mason, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom counties.

On Nov. 15, Governor Inslee declared a severe weather state of emergency.

As the months went on, the assessment included severe storms, straight-line winds, flooding, landslides, and mudslides.

The initial period of the incident was expanded beyond Nov. 13 through Nov. 15, 2021. As of January 2022, it includes Nov. 5 through Dec. 2, 2021.

Now, more households are eligible for FEMA assistance.

It takes time to assess risk, to make sure everyone impacted is included. But residents are still left scrambling for secure housing.

Residents are in temporary housing like trailers, or staying with friends and family nearby.

“It’s hard when you’re waiting that long for a declaration,” says Christensen. “It’s just the way it’s been for years.”

Christensen says that he wishes it was a quicker process, but making change at the level of emergency declaration is difficult.

“We have 1,082 people in Whatcom County who have applied for individual assistance,” he says.

Roughly $6 million has gone out to the families so far.

What’s in place for prevention?

At the community meeting in November, residents pleaded and demanded representatives to help them navigate red tape for not only emergency assistance, but prevention for the next flood.

Washington state is one of the most flood-prone states in the nation. From November through February, we face flood season. Floods can mean road closures, landslides, and the destruction of homes and businesses.

In November, towns like Everson, Sumas, Lynden, and Ferndale took the brunt of historic flooding. This was not the first flood and it won’t be the last.

At the community meeting in November, one woman recalls getting six inches of water in her home in 2019 and six feet in 2020. By 2021, she had seven feet of water in her home.

“We’re living this nightmare every single day,” she says.

Right now, FEMA has been set up across the county. Emergency resources from the Small Business Administration, Disaster Relief Center, and the Washington State Division of Emergency Management encourage residents to apply for everything and appeal, in case they are denied.

Whatcom County needs disaster case managers to help individual families and community members with their specific needs. And that’s in progress.

But it’s still flood season. One temporary solution, say Christensen: sand totes.

To reduce any significant amount of water from reaching homes, the county placed sand totes south of Everson on Emerson Road.

Sand totes are heavy duty. Some can hold up to 63 sand bags at a time.

“We need other solutions,” Christensen says.

All solutions are on the table

Creating long-term solutions that do not harm other people, wildlife, or the environment is a great challenge.

One piece of red tape some residents want to navigate is dredging.

Dredging is the process of removing the sediment and gravel in the river that can cause the river to overflow. However, that sediment is also the fertile spawning grounds of salmon and other fish in Washington state.

Puget Sound Chinook and Puget Sound steelhead are listed as threatened under the ESA.

The Nooksack River has flooded before and often. And Washington state used to dredge it before protections were put in place following the concerns of the Nooksack and Lummi nations, as well as regulatory agencies.

Christensen says Whatcom County is finding some common ground in removing sediment from gravel bars--the sediment collecting on the sides of the river.

He’s hopeful this approach could address everyone’s concerns.

“You gotta look at what’s the best position for the people, for the fish, and then for the environment. You have to have all those three aspects in the discussion.”

This ongoing discussion includes community leaders, tribes, residents, elected officials, and state agencies like the Department of Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We need to give people the confidence they need to reinvest and rebuild and stay in their communities,” Christensen says.

“Everybody needs to come to the table and we need to hear the concerns and walk away with something that we’re going to do to help the people of Whatcom County.”

We want Soundside to be a place where we hear from all voices, where we set a tone of respect and transparency. During this interview, you can hear David Radabough, a Flood Specialist for the Washington state Department of Ecology answer my first question. Radabough and Curt Hart, a spokesperson for the Department of Ecology, reached out to say that Radabough experienced technical difficulties and was not intending to answer the question.

Here is a statement from the department: “It is likely that improved flood safety in Whatcom County will include a variety of approaches. Although there are concerns about the effects that dredging operations in the Nooksack River could have on salmon, now is not the time to rule out any possible solutions. Local and tribal governments and state and federal agencies need to weigh the benefits as well as the costs and consequences of any option we consider.”

We look forward to speaking with the Department of Ecology again (and anyone else at the table.)