Julie McDonald Commentary: A Flooded Freeway? Not That I Could See

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As rain pelted the roof Thursday night, I surfed the Internet for news about road closures due to flooding. Despite closure of the Rush Road interchange at Exit 72, I read assurances that closure of Interstate 5 was unlikely because of improvements made since the devastating 2007 Chehalis River flood.

Whew.

We needed to drive our son to Sea-Tac Friday morning so he could fly back to Helsinki, where he works for an American software development and installation company. He had scheduled an 11 a.m. COVID-19 test at the airport, so we couldn’t afford any delays.

Driving north from Toledo, I noticed the digital highway sign mentioned Exit 68, and my adult children checked their cellphones, confirming that 20 minutes earlier, the Washington State Department of Transportation closed I-5 between Exits 68 and 88.

They urged me to leave the freeway, but I kept driving, figuring I’d leave when the traffic was directed to do so.

But it wasn’t.

At Rush Road, we saw high water in the parking lot of Bethel Church. When we passed the Chehalis exits, high water flooded nearby farmland, but nothing encroached on the freeway.

My husband, an avid weather-watcher for more than half a century, insisted that the freeway shouldn’t be closed at that time — and it wasn’t as we saw no barriers anywhere. Although the Skookumchuck River was expected to crest 2 feet above record levels, forecasters predicted only moderate flooding on the Chehalis River.

In the past, he said, it has been flooding on the Chehalis that closed the freeway. As we neared Centralia, we saw no water on the freeway from the Skookumchuck, although Harrison Avenue looked flooded.

Online updates noted the freeway closure, but traffic sailed through, so I kept driving.

If he’d known the freeway would be closed, my son said he would have changed his flight. When updates stated I-5 would be closed until Sunday, an Oregon friend of mine who had planned to help her parents in Tacoma after her mother’s surgery rescheduled her trip north. Trucks filled the Maytown Rest Area and lined the shoulders nearby as news of the closure spread.

But why was it closing?

Fourteen years ago, in early December 2007, I drove south from Centralia to Toledo on I-5 with my kids in the car, hugging the left shoulder as water covered the right lane of the freeway. The drive, although harrowing, proved uneventful for me and other motorists who crossed the Chehalis River floodplain before state officials closed the interstate. (My daughter, who was 6 at the time, said she’s had nightmares about that water covering the freeway though.)

So why did the state shut a freeway dampened only by rain and not floodwater?

I didn’t understand it, but before the freeway closure actually occurred, we had passed through the Twin Cities. After dropping off our son at the airport, though, news of the extended freeway closure flashed on DOT digital message boards, which stated, “Road Flooded.” Hmmm. The water must have risen fast because it certainly wasn’t close to being flooded more than an hour earlier when we drove north.

I continued driving south, baffled about what seemed an unnecessary closure of the freeway. About that time, my daughter noted that Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope publicly questioned the freeway closure — and I agreed with him.

We left I-5 at Exit 88, where the southbound freeway was blockaded, and drove south from Grand Mound on Harrison, figuring we’d find a way home. Our GPS suggested taking Reynolds Avenue to cross the Skookumchuck River and drive south on Pearl Street, so we tried. But Pearl Street was barricaded north of the Skookumchuck River bridge.

I would never drive through a barricade where officials have closed a road deemed too dangerous to traverse. But I’ve driven countless times through shallow water on Jackson Highway when Lacamas Creek overflowed its banks and county officials put up “Water Over Roadway” signs as a warning to motorists but didn’t close the road. On Friday, I did the same on Reynolds Avenue.

By that time, forecasters revised dire predictions that the Skookumchuck would crest at record levels, and the northbound lanes had reopened. I figured it wouldn’t be long before we could drive south, and sure enough, we entered I-5 just north of Mellen Street.

The rain had stopped, and I searched for flood water on the freeway. The closest I saw was marked by an orange traffic cone near the right shoulder’s white line just north of 13th Street.

I understand the need to take precautions, but disrupting traffic on the only north-south interstate between Seattle and Portland wreaks havoc with commerce, emergency vehicle access to hospitals and the plans of people. If worried about potholes and flooded exits, why didn’t the DOT just slow the traffic and inform motorists they can’t exit the freeway for 20 miles? As water encroached, the traffic could be funneled to one lane before it was completely closed.

But overall, our state, county and city public works crews do a phenomenal job as do our law enforcement and emergency services workers.

While I headed for back roads toward home, local elected officials met with DOT leaders in a 10:30 a.m. meeting set up by 20th District Sen. John Braun of Chehalis and his legislative assistant, Ruth Peterson of Boistfort, to discuss the I-5 closure.

“I asked WSDOT about their choice to base their decisions on a single river gauge at Mellen Street,” Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock wrote on Facebook Friday night, “and I made the case to consider additional data from the Newaukum, Doty, and other hydrologic data points.”

DOT officials reviewed additional information and, after an internal meeting at noon, reopened the freeway — a move that Pollock applauded.

After our Friday sojourn, we contemplated our next transportation problem. My daughter needed to return to Pullman for classes at Washington State University — but the same storm that dumped rain on Lewis County brought heavy snowfalls that closed all east-west passes through the Cascades in Washington for days.

WSU officials held a town hall Thursday to consider delaying classes because of the nasty weather and increased COVID-19 cases, but they opted to keep classes on schedule while urging professors to provide leniency to students who couldn’t attend Monday or Tuesday.

I’m sure they heard complaints, because the following day, they announced classes would be delayed until Wednesday.

Our daughter drove back to Pullman Sunday by traveling through the Columbia Gorge on Interstate 84.

Now, with both adult kids safely home and Christmas decorations put away, it’s time to return to work. Forecasts this week call for warmer-than-normal temperatures — and less rain.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.