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Originally published February 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 18, 2010 at 3:56 PM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Awash In Trouble

Last Nov. 6, at the start of one of our stormiest autumns on record, Skagit County was scheduled to wash away.

LAST NOV. 6, at the start of one of our stormiest autumns on record, Skagit County was scheduled to wash away.

The Pineapple Express, a moisture-heavy storm system from the tropics, pointed at Western Washington like a muscular arm throwing a knockout right. Forecasters predicted 8 inches of rain throughout the Skagit River's vast watershed.

That kind of downpour would produce a torrent of 200,000 cubic feet of water per second ("cfs") downstream, even with the Skagit and Baker River dams doing all they could to hold the flood back. Skagit County levees can contain only about 155,000 cfs. Above that, they give way.

Here's what officials feared might happen:

More than 30,000 people living in the floodplain would have to be evacuated.

Water would fill the bottomlands below the town of Concrete and pool to 10 feet deep from Burlington to Fir Island near the river's mouth.

A river would fill Cascade Mall. Auto dealers would be awash. The proposed site of a Wal-Mart superstore would be 8 feet under.

Interstate 5 would close, its Skagit bridge threatened by a torrent of logs. Highway 20 to the west would be submerged, cutting off Fidalgo and Whidbey islands. The trestles of the Burlington-Northern main line would be washed away.

A lake would form from Edison in the north to La Conner and Conway in the south.

"Everything would have been under water," says Ted Perkins, a hydraulic engineer who studies the Skagit for the Army Corps of Engineers.

At the river's Big Bend west of Mount Vernon, the Anacortes water plant would be wrecked. Water for Anacortes, Oak Harbor and the Whidbey Naval Air Station would be cut off. Two major oil refineries, robbed of fresh water, would close. The region's primary natural-gas pipeline might break.

Damage, by Corps of Engineers estimate, would be $1.2 billion. Chuck Bennett, commissioner of Burlington's Dike District 12, thinks it could reach 10 times that. His city would be this state's New Orleans, and the Pineapple Express would be our Katrina.

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Then God nudged a finger. The storm shifted south. Skykomish, feeding the less-developed and less-vulnerable Snohomish River Valley, had 27 percent more rain than predicted. Mount Rainier got a staggering 18 inches, forcing the national park to close. And instead of reaching 200,000 cfs, the Skagit crested at 145,000, just below the levee brim.

Both the Skagit and Snohomish valleys flooded, but to a degree locals have come to regard as the norm. Once more, the "100-year storm" — an inundation expected to average just a 1 percent chance of happening in any particular year — had been dodged.

Those who know the Skagit understood that the escape was luck, not planning. Once more, the hamlet of Hamilton was under water, a sacrificial warning to bigger cities downstream. And once more, politicians toured the town. Asked about the habitually-delayed plans to move it, Gov. Christine Gregoire promised, "I'll find a way to get it done."

The 120,000 sandbags laid along Mount Vernon's downtown proved unnecessary. But "the Skagit is a ticking bomb," says Linda Smith, Corps of Engineers project manager of yet another plan to stave off flooding. "People think they've already seen the 100-year flood. They have no clue."

Some disagree with this scenario. Larry Kunzler, who lives in Sedro-Woolley and has made Skagit history his hobby, contends the Skagit probably showed close to its worst in 2003, when flooding destroyed 34 homes and damaged 115. Rainfall was the same as it was in 1897, the biggest flood year on record, but the dams kept flows from reaching that year's catastrophic levels, he believes.

Who's right? Prognosticators walk an uneasy line between making the threat serious enough that the public pays attention, and not so catastrophic that the cost of a solution in prohibitive.

On that line are people like dike commissioner Bennett. He sides with Kunzler in thinking that if federal flood estimates are too high, remedies become prohibitively expensive. Yet he says levees give people a false sense of security. "Everyone says it's OK to build behind them. But if they ever go, everything from Sedro-Woolley to the Swinomish Channel (at La Conner) will be under water."

IT'S NOT JUST tulips and Dutch names in the phonebook that give the Skagit River delta a resemblance to Holland. Half its 100-square-mile floodplain was swamp and tidal marsh when pioneers arrived, and only an elaborate system of dikes, ditches and gates keeps sea and river water out.

Like all Western Washington rivers, the Skagit is relatively short, steep and quick to flood. It has reached flood stage 60 times in the past 100 years and had 17 major floods.

Unlike other west-side rivers, the Skagit's 3,000-square-mile watershed is big: third biggest in the western United States, after the Columbia and Sacramento. Its upper reaches are dammed, supplying power to Seattle City Light; its Baker River tributary is also dammed, supplying power to Puget Sound Energy. But the Sauk River tributary is a Wild and Scenic River, by federal designation, and can't be dammed, meaning 40 percent of the Skagit is "unregulated," in federalese. We can't control the Skagit by turning a valve.

Western Washington is a temperate hotbed of hazards: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, wind and snow. It is a place broken up by water and dependent on fragile bridges and temperamental ferries. Flooding is so commonplace it is scarcely noted, but on average, it kills more Americans than hurricanes, tornadoes and lightning combined.

While the first huge Skagit flood recorded was in 1897, Indians reported at least two mammoth ones before that. But it was the big floods of 1917 and 1921 that persuaded Congress to order the beginning of flood studies that since have generated enough reports to, ahem, dam the Skagit.

One idea, still touted by some like longtime Cockerham Island farmer Dick Mailliard, is to dredge the river to let its channel carry more water. Mailliard, too far upriver for most other improvement schemes to do him any good, said dredging in the old days seemed to help. But dredging would damage salmon habitat, and historic dredging simply cast the muck onto each bank, where it washed back in with the next flood. Few if any officials think dredging is a practical solution today.

Another proposal is to keep the Seattle dam reservoirs so low so that when another Pineapple Express hits, there is ample room to store the water. This could help — some flood control is already provided, and the corps takes over dam management in floods — but the dams are managed primarily for power production. Leaving too much room for flood waters means less electricity and too little water for fish in the summer. Reservoir control is trickier than people assume, and management is a political morass of competing priorities among power companies, Indian tribes, environmentalists and federal agencies.

A third idea is to set the dikes back farther from the river, giving more room for water to flow between them. But this requires taking farm and city land, and rebuilding every bridge, including the I-5 bridge across the Skagit. Good idea, if they'd done it 75 years ago.

A related idea would ring Skagit cities with dikes like the Alamo. Right now, a dike breach allows water to pour in from the undiked back side.

A fourth scheme, first proposed in 1936, is to build an outlet at the Skagit's Big Bend west of Burlington and Mount Vernon and let excess water drain westward to Padilla Bay. At one time the Skagit flowed in this direction. But the cost of a 2,000-foot-wide channel was recently estimated at $300 million (up from the $4 million deemed "unaffordable" during the Great Depression) and aroused new environmental and farm concerns.

A fifth idea is to just build dikes higher, in key areas. The city of Mount Vernon has proposed a dike or retaining wall to protect downtown. This saves just one place, not the county.

Then there is the idea of simply getting people out of the water's path. Mount Vernon did this by turning a neighborhood on the bank opposite its downtown into Edgewater Park, which floods as a relief valve. Hamilton, midway between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete, is the next test.

PIONEERS BUILT near rivers because they could bring steamboats up them and float logs down them. Hamilton was no exception, and a town of 345 people today once boasted 2,000 in its timber heyday. There was too little farmland to justify a diking district that far upriver, however, and Hamilton had a tendency to flood.

Accordingly, commerce moved on. What saved Hamilton from extinction was a combination of charm — "No place is nicer in spring and summer," says postmistress Sue Dills, who has lived through four major floods — and cheap real estate. The very fact that Hamilton floods makes it a bargain.

Hamilton is also a taxpayer headache. Residents were paid about $1 million in claims under the national flood-insurance program after the 2003 flood. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has paid another $2 million the past two decades in disaster assistance.

FEMA has programs that both sustain residents in flood zones through insurance (which requires flood-proofing) and encourage them to leave through buyouts. The latter is not cheap. In 1996, about $6.3 million was spent to purchase 84 properties, move seven homes and elevate an eighth.

Some 20,100 American towns participate in these federal programs, and the rigid building requirements or removals save an estimated $1 billion a year nationwide in annual flood damage, according to FEMA.

Now plans are afoot to move all of Hamilton to higher ground on the north side of Highway 20, at a cost of $70 million to $100 million, some $20 million of it offset by selling new lots to contractors.

Federal studies indicate that will be cheaper, over the next 100 years, than sustaining the soggy community where it is. Negotiations are under way to buy needed property. Then streets and utilities would be put in and lots sold, presumably to residents whose existing homes would be bought out. It is not a giveaway — most would wind up with a mortgage on their new property — but it would eliminate Skagit County's most frequent flood problem.

An example of how complicated it is to transplant families is Nadine and Matthew Auckland and their four children, who moved back from Arizona to Skagit County in 1998. While Matthew works at the Anacortes refineries, he lives an hour away in Hamilton because a house with a view cost less than $100,000.

Then came the 2003 flood, which drowned their dream in four feet of water. "I tried to prepare myself and my kids for what it would be like, but we were not prepared," Nadine says. "We knew there was a risk, but we had no idea."

They might have moved then, but the Aucklands had already refinanced their home to remodel, and there was a $59,000 gap between what the federal government would give to get them out and their mortgage. The gap has only grown: Today, the home's market value has ballooned to $270,000.

But on Nov. 6, their recreation room and garage flooded three-feet deep. Then came two feet of snow, toppling trees and tearing off their gutters, and three severe windstorms. "We're done," she says wearily.

Now she's waiting to hear if one of the federal programs can get them out from under their mortgage and allow them to start over in Sedro-Woolley, "on a hill."

A new Hamilton Public Development Authority has identified 400 homes between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete that are good candidates for removal, 100 of them in Hamilton. Grant coordinator Lauren Freitas is exploring ways to apply insurance money to bridge the gap between what FEMA can legally pay for a home (its assessed value) and its market value, but the details are complicated. The juggling act has defeated previous efforts dating back to 1975. Political enthusiasm tends to recede with flood waters.

One problem, says Hamilton Mayor Tim Bates, a lifelong resident, is that floods are not perceived entirely as disasters. "Wives love it," he says. "They get new carpeting and a new washer and dryer. We've got 345 people here who fight tooth and nail 364 days of the year, and then when a flood comes, everyone helps everyone."

And while a few landlords take insurance payments and don't make the expected repairs, many homeowners have invested in raising their homes so they can ride it out.

"A lot of people are not interested in leaving," says postmistress Dills. "And I don't expect the government to bail us out just because we've bought here."

Yet FEMA Region 10 mitigation director Carl Cook says relocation is what will keep Hamilton alive. Tillamook, Oregon's most flood-prone community, has had great success relocating business and houses out of the floodplain.

The question is whether the political will can be sustained to get Hamilton out of the way before the next flood — and how big that flood might be.

LARRY KUNZLER'S lifetime passion has become arguing with a dead man, James Stewart. Back in the 1920s, Stewart looked at Skagit River flood marks on trees and banks to try to predict the unpredictable: what the worst flood in 100 years is likely to be. The federal government uses Stewart's estimates to this day. But Kunzler, who has done his own search of records and flood marks, and posts his findings at www.skagitriverhistory.com, thinks Stewart was 75,000 cfs too high.

Theirs would be a quirky historical spat if it wasn't so important in deciding the future of Skagit County. Choose Kunzler's numbers, backed by an Edmonds-based consulting firm named Pacific International Engineering, and floodplain maps shrink. Insurance costs go down. Modifying dikes to achieve 100-year protection becomes more affordable. And the way is open to develop the Skagit Valley as intensively as south King County's Green River Valley has been developed since construction of the Corps of Engineers' Howard Hansen flood-control dam in 1962.

Choose Stewart's numbers, and you believe the county is gambling with disaster. If that Nov. 6 storm hadn't shifted south, says dike commissioner Bennett, "We would only have had a few hours to evacuate the valley floor."

It's not just flood damage at stake, it's the character of the last great agricultural oasis in Western Washington. The flood threat can be a preservationist's best friend. End it and Skagit County offers the kind of pan-flat developable land that lured Boeing, Southcenter and the Supermall to the Green River Valley. Raise the dikes, and the flood may be asphalt, not water. It's a stormy issue.

The Corps of Engineers has been authorized three times to undertake major flood-control improvements on the Skagit, and each time the local matching funds necessary failed to materialize. In 1937 county commissioners pleaded poverty because of the Great Depression; in 1965 there was little public interest because there had been no recent major floods; in 1979, a proposal to raise the dikes to give farmland 50-year protection and cities 100-year protection was rejected by nearly three-fourths of the voters.

But after big floods in 1990, 1995, 2003 and 2006, the corps is studying the issue yet again, with the latest recitation of alternatives due this spring.

All this should sound very familiar to us. We build at Ocean Shores despite the risk of a tsunami from a catastrophic earthquake that happens every 300 to 1,000 years. We build in the Puyallup and Green valleys despite past Mount Rainier eruptive mudflows that have reached as far as Tacoma and Auburn. The Seattle Fault runs under our sports stadiums. We drive on a viaduct that may pancake in even a modest earthquake. We rely on floating bridges, live in hillside homes, put subdivisions in forest-fire zones and don't have enough lifeboats on our ferries.

So far, so good.

Flood officials can easily imagine the worst scenario on the Skagit. First the ground freezes iron-hard, preventing water absorption. Then heavy snowfall. And then a Pineapple Express of tropic rain to melt that snow. As some dikes breach, water pools behind others and can't drain away.

Now add global warming. Thermal expansion and icecap melting has pushed up seawater to the crest of the sea dikes. "The warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold," says corps meteorologist Larry Schick. The Pineapple storms are worse. The sea dikes fail. A higher tide backs up the flooding river. A century and a half of land reclamation is swept away in a day.

That latest study? Not due until 2009.

The tragedy of New Orleans is not just that it happened, but that it was predicted to happen, over and over again. And the Skagit?

Dike 12's Bennett has a simple answer: "You can only be lucky so many times."

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer. Erika Schultz is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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