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Living with flooding, pt. 3: Learning to coexist alongside the river

December 23, 2009 -

Sno Valley Star

Read article (with graphics) online...

By Dan Catchpole and Laura Geggel

Part 3 of 3

The communities of Snoqualmie Valley have persevered despite heavy floods. The inhabitants are invested in their neighborhoods and don't want to leave the area's beautiful setting. Now, the residents and local municipalities with King County's help are learning how to live beside wild rivers prone to seasonal flooding.

Together, they are finding a way to coexist with the river.

For many the answer is elevating their houses. More and more homes in Snoqualmie and North Bend have been raised up in recent years. The sight of a house sitting on stacks of logs as it is being elevated is not uncommon around the upper Valley.

Along other stretches of the river, the county continues to maintain levees and revetments to hold the river in place.

Some residents' houses have been simply bought out by local government to remove the inhabitants from harm's way.

Living with flooding

* Part 1: A valley endures

* Part 2: Balancing growth and environment in Snoqualmie River floodplain

* Part 3: Learning to coexist alongside the river

Finding a way for people to live and work on floodplains is critically important to Snoqualmie Valley residents and King County, which has major economic interests on floodplains. This is especially true along the Green River, where much of the county's manufacturing base is located.

Rising above it

Snoqualmie residents are interested in house elevations, according to Lauren Hollenbeck, a senior planner for Snoqualmie.

"People don't want to move. They want to stay and get their homes elevated," she said.

After the 2006 flood, around 90 residents applied to have their houses raised, while only 12 applied to have their homes bought out.

Don and Nancy Ekberg are happy to be able to look down on their yard from their front door now that their house has been elevated a full story.

After buying their home in Snoqualmie, it was flooded in 2006 and 2009. It was devastating for them.

The Ekbergs applied to have their home raised after the 2006 flood. They had to wait more than two years for the elevation, and in January 2009, their house was inundated with much higher floodwater than in the previous flood.

Once work started last summer, it only took the contractor, Roswold, Inc. of North Bend, about five weeks to complete.

Ekberg takes the delay in stride, chalking it up to "bureaucratic backlog."

While contractors worked on their home, the Ekbergs slept in a camper.

"We used to walk up four steps, now we go up 15," Nancy said as she smiled.

The home elevation has brought peace of mind.

"If we hadn't been raised up, I would've walked away—screw my credit," Ekberg said.

The elevations are "extremely cost-effective," Hollenbeck said. "They're easier to get funding for than if you're dredging the river or something like that."

The bulk of the money comes from the federal government and is managed by FEMA. Communities must compete for the money, except for some federal grants like the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The grant is available to cities after floods.

"It's easier to go after because it's not nationally-competitive," Hollenbeck said.

Since the 1980s, around 120 homes in Snoqualmie have been elevated or built as elevated by the city and homeowners.

Home elevations are effective in part because the Snoqualmie River's floodwaters are generally not fast moving. If they were, even raised houses would be at risk of having their foundations' undermined.

Snoqualmie Valley residents typically have a day or two warning of impending flooding.

"For two days, you're sitting there, waiting for your house to get flooded," he said.

After the floods, the mental and emotional stress of having to put their lives back together took a toll as well. Besides the quantifiable damages to their house and possessions, there were potential irreplaceable losses as well.

After the 2006 flood, Junior, one of the Ekbergs two cats, was nowhere to be found. The white and gray cat was only a kitten at the time. Three weeks later Ekberg was doing repair work at home. He had several large fans going, trying to dry out the house. Over the fans whirring, he heard Junior's plaintive cries.

"He came in looking frazzled, dirty and hungry," he said.

Snoqualmie focuses on elevations and tries to minimize buyouts, because FEMA requires that the land remain empty forever, Hollenbeck said.

The city doesn't want its downtown sprinkled with empty lots, so it focuses its buyouts along the river's banks or if a house is extremely damaged, Hollenbeck said.

"That land has to remain open in perpetuity. You can't build a house on it. You can build a pea patch. We have lots of pea patches in town," she said.

To qualify for a buyout, a house must sustain more than 50 percent damage from one flood.

Future development

Because of FEMA guidelines, development is strictly controlled in Snoqualmie Valley's floodplain.

For a community's residents to qualify for the national flood insurance program, it has to meet FEMA's regulatory standards for development in a floodplain. By adopting further standards, a community can also help its residents get a reduced rate on the insurance.

"FEMA's development guidelines don't preclude any development in the floodway, but it does make it more difficult, said Clint Loper, King County's supervising hydraulic engineer for the Snoqualmie River basin.

Snoqualmie, North Bend and King County, which manages unincorporated areas, have adopted strict development standards. For example, Snoqualmie limits density in the floodplain by requiring at least five acres before a residential unit can be subdivided. Because of that and other measures, flood insurance rates for Snoqualmie residents are reduced 25 percent.

In unincorporated areas, King County has a zero-rise standard. No new development can have a noticeable affect on the flood level.

However, this has been relaxed somewhat in lower Snoqualmie Valley to make it easier for farmers to build farm pads. The pads are elevated patches of land where they can move animals and expensive equipment during floods.

Only a small portion of North Bend is in the FEMA-mapped floodway, but much of the city is in the floodplain, said Gina Estep, the city's economic development director.

Since the downtown core is not in the floodway, North Bend doesn't face significant restrictions on development.

It's more a matter to address the safety concerns" of residents and business owners, she said. Nonetheless, "being in the floodplain does come with some restrictions," such as building elevated homes.

Like Snoqualmie, North Bend's development code allows residents to receive reduced flood insurance rates.

Even with flood insurance, homeowners must be ready to pay some expenses up front.

"Initially, it's all out of pocket because you're waiting for the checks to come in," Ekberg said. He and his wife waited up to two months for their insurance payments to start coming.

Out of luck

Some residents have had bitter experiences trying to get their houses elevated, though. Two of them live in Shamrock Park, a neighborhood surrounded by, but not part of North Bend. A continuous levee system holds back the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River, which runs along the neighborhood's east and north sides.

Shamrock Park resident Dwight Bunn and his wife got stuck in bureaucratic morass between FEMA and the county trying to get their house raised. Rather than wait for another flood, the couple took $67,000 from their retirement savings to raise their house four feet.

The Bunns found plenty of hidden costs, they said. The work was not tax deductible, and they had to pay for permits.

Another Shamrock Park resident, Stephanie Huber, reported similar difficulties in trying to save her two-story home, where she has lived since 1989.

Huber's already spent almost $250,000 on protecting and repairing her house from flood damage, she said.

Huber grew up in the neighborhood, and has seen the landscape change over the years.

The neighborhood, which is bordered by North Bend on three sides, has sought to join the city, but with no success.

"We've asked to be annexed and never got anywhere. And why? Because we're a liability," she said.

North Bend won't annex Shamrock Park because of its flooding risk, according to a city official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the issue.

Managing the river

Several Snoqualmie Valley residents said they want the river dredged, but King County is reluctant to dredge unless it considers it absolutely necessary. The county monitors several points along the river to determine if dredging is required, but it hasn't opted for it since the 1990s. The river hasn't been regularly dredged since the 1960s.

Streambeds naturally change as a river carries sediment down from the highlands, and just because a gravel bar is created doesn't mean it will make flooding any worse, Loper said.

During a significant flood event, the Snoqualmie River carries 200 or 300 times its normal capacity.

In most cases, dredging the river beforehand wouldn't make a noticeable difference in the flood level, he said.

As always, cost is a consideration.

"For any given problem, there might be multiple solutions to look at," Loper said.

In lower Snoqualmie Valley, there are also environmental considerations, as the river there is spawning habitat for salmon, which are protected.

King County has also adapted how it manages levees and revetments along rivers. More flexible designs have been adopted when possible to more closely mimic natural settings, which are typically best suited for holding floodwater, Loper said.

The county has begun using setback levees and revetments, when possible. As their name implies, they are setback from the river, rather than hard against it, like the levees protecting Shamrock Park.

That extra room, which oftentimes has vegetation growing in it, allows for a river's "inevitable desire to move," Loper said. "That's hopefully more long-term sustainable and more cost effective because you're not fighting the river."

Even slow-moving rivers like the Snoqualmie have tremendous force. It is expensive and difficult to lock its channel into one path. But this is what human development often tries to do, noted several experts.

Setback measures allow the river channel room to move around.

But they aren't a solution for the entire Snoqualmie.

"There are homes and businesses that are getting flooded and I don't think there's any structural solution to changing that," Loper said.

While King County's Water and Land Resources manages the rivers day to day, the King County Flood Control District has overseen flood protection policies and projects since it was created in 2007.

King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert — who represents Snoqualmie and North Bend — chairs the board with other members of the County Council.

Overall, Lambert said, "residents need to be at higher elevations."

Community spirit

While flooding is destructive and dangerous, it can also bring the community together sometimes. Neighbors help each other secure belongings and move them out of harms way. Residents fill sandbags for people in harm's way. After the flooding, people pitch in to clean up.

Flooding brought out the best in the community, said Jane Ellen Seymour, a North Bend parent.

When a North Bend Yahoo group sent a message asking for sandbagging volunteers, her children helped at the city's Public Works building.

"It was wonderful," Seymour said. "I'm a North Bend resident, so I was impressed with the quality and the amount of the communication."

The Seymour family also picked up debris at Mount Si High School.

"Many hands make light work," Seymour said. "What was nice, it was not just adults. It was whole families helping pitch in and clean up."

Community members—some not even from the Valley—came to fill sandbags in the cold rain in January in downtown Snoqualmie.

Julie Randazzo, owner of Sahara Pizza and Adventure Lanes, made pizza and coffee for the volunteers. She figures she fed around 20, but not everyone ate, she said.

Dan Catchpole: 392-6434, ext. 246, or editor@snovalleystar.com. Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 221, or lgeggel@snovalleystar.com.