Ten years ago Sunday, a “pineapple express” weather system sent the raging Chehalis River spilling out of its banks, ravaging Lewis County property and homes while closing down Interstate 5 for several days in the worst natural disaster the region has seen in recorded history.
Initial cost estimates of damage in the area to private and public infrastructure totaled around $166 million, a number that continued to grow during the months and years of cleanup efforts that followed.
Looking back at the anniversary of the devastating 2007 flooding of the Chehalis River, local leaders working to address the decades-long issues of chronic flooding can still pinpoint where they were and how they felt as they witnessed homes and businesses being destroyed.
J. Vander Stoep, a prominent Chehalis attorney and a member of the newly formed Office of the Chehalis Basin, said he watched the valley fill up with water from his home on a ridge west of Chehalis.
“We watched it go to places it had never gone before in the 20 or so years we lived here,” he said.
Vander Stoep and his neighbor took the backroads to Adna, where the river had broken the levee and raged through the small town. Helicopters worked to rescue residents who were stranded on their rooftops as the water overtook homes.
“It was nothing less than a miracle that people weren’t killed,” Vander Stoep said.
Others remember the sobering feeling that washed over them as they were able to see the impacts up close. Commissioner Edna Fund worked in The Chronicle newsroom at the time as a proofreader and history writer. She went to Interstate 5 to see the closed freeway that funneled tens of thousands of people through Lewis County on a daily basis.
“It was so quiet and it brought a sense of, ‘I can’t believe how powerful this water is,’” she said. “Here is the interstate that 60,000 people go through everyday and it’s dead; it is just so quiet.”
Former Commissioner Ron Averill was elected in 2006, one year before the flood occurred. He said the most important lesson people took away from the event is the determination to make improvements and help mitigate flood damage in the future.
“What it did was it gave us a resolve, because we’d been going since the turn of the century with flooding in the county,” he said. “We always get to the point where it seems like we might do something and it falls to the side.”
This time, those efforts would remain a focus for leaders in the area, he said.
Dec. 3 will be the 10-year anniversary since the waters ripped through the area. Since then, progress has been made throughout the Chehalis River Basin in an effort to mitigate damages when the next catastrophic flood hits the area.
Averill, who is a member of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, said $30 million has been invested in local projects to reduce future flood damage in the years since. In the surrounding areas, that sum includes funding for projects in Bucoda, Centralia, Chehalis, Adna, Napavine, Oakville, Pe Ell and within the Boistfort Valley.
“There has been a lot of what we call local projects in the flood world that have been put in, permitted and built in most cases on time and on budget to protect parts of local communities,” Vander Stoep said.
He pointed to the Pe Ell Water Treatment facility that received more than $1 million of damage in the 2007 flood, adding that a dike has been built to protect the facility. The Chehalis-Centralia Airport Levee has also been significantly strengthened and widened. A new pump-house with two water pumps has been completed to help drive water out of the airport if disaster strikes again.
Homes and other buildings have been raised out of the floodplain, while other structures, such as the former Midway Meat Packing building on Airport Road in Centralia, have been removed completely.
Critter pads, a name used for elevated land for livestock, have been constructed on local farms so that animals have high ground to move to in case high waters once again fill the area.
Improvements have also been made near the Adna school, and a project to fix drainage along the Willapa Hills Trail has been completed, and upgrades to the Boistfort Water System have also been made.
Aside from local projects, efforts have taken place on a much larger scale with the creation of the Office of the Chehalis Basin, which has been created by the Legislature to take an aggressive, two-pronged approach to implement an integrated strategy for long-term flood damage reduction and aquatic species restoration in the basin. The Legislature will fund the office, which is now located within the state Department of Ecology, when it passes a capital budget. The plan is to unite those who fear flooding and those who are working to protect habitat for fish and other aquatic species.
The Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District — the project sponsor of a proposed dam near Pe Ell — has approved a motion to begin permitting the water retention facility on both the state and federal levels.
“There has been a lot of talk for close to 100 years of, ‘Gee, what are we going to do about the fishery in decline in the basin and what are we going to do to find a basinwide solution for catastrophic flood damage?’” Vander Stoep said. “This is the first time that both of these issues have been joined together and addressed in a comprehensive way.”
Fund, one of three supervisors of the flood control zone district, said the basin as a whole is moving forward and making progress to better the lives of Lewis County citizens.
“We are working on getting that water retention and fish mitigation done, so I’m hoping our kids and grandkids won’t have to worry about the flooding,” she said.
The process of combating major floods and improving the fisheries will still take a lot of time, and prior to that, officials said residents and area leaders need to focus on the likelihood that another large flood will hit the area.
“In the meantime, we have to prepare for what we know is probable,” Averill said, adding that climate change is predicted to cause more frequent and heavier rain events.
The collaboration of various flood-focused groups, area tribes, citizens and experts has reached a level that has never before been seen in the area, the leaders said. It’s the most cooperative and advanced approach residents of the basin have ever taken.
“There have been hundreds of random, disconnected studies on flooding and aquatic species decline in the Chehalis Basin since 1910,” Vander Stoep said. “The difference is in the last four years all of the work, all of the research, all of the analysis on both subjects have built on itself … It’s all been coordinated and all of those components are being done in a synchronized way.”
Efforts have also been taken to better prepare residents for impending flood events. The county has launched Lewis County Alert, a notification system, and has also created applications where citizens can look at river levels and impacted roads when a flood event does happen.
“We have more information out there than we have ever had before,” Fund said.
The key step is to keep educating the public about what is taking place to mitigate damage and what could happen in future events, she said.
It’s also important to note that once the dam is constructed, it will not be an end to flooding in local communities, Vander Stoep said.
“We’ll still have the floods we had two years ago, because (the dam) is not going to be used to stop that kind of flooding,” he said. “What it will do is it will shave off the peak of these occasional catastrophic floods.”
According to the final Environmental Impact Statement released by the Department of Ecology, the dam and associated projects would reduce Interstate 5 closures by three days and would also reduce the flooding of state Route 6, U.S. Highway 101, U.S. Highway 12 and other local roads by one to three days.
When I-5 was closed in 2007, it was estimated that $4 million a day was lost by trucking firms alone for every day of the closure, according to previous reporting by The Chronicle.
The projects will hopefully also bring more employers to Lewis County, Fund said.
“When you Google Lewis County, flooding comes up,” she said. “But hopefully we’ll change that, and we are working on it. We’ve made progress so employers will want to come here, and people will want to live here because this is a wonderful place to live.”