Ryan Wittig and his family lived in their new house in Sumas for one month before three feet of water destroyed most of their still-boxed belongings and all of Wittig’s contracting tools. Water rose too fast for the Wittigs to drive away or lift their things, and forced the family into their small loft since they had no second story. The Wittigs were eventually saved with a neighbor’s boat and tractor. They came back to a home almost destroyed.
Last November’s flood wrought $150 million in structural damages, displaced 500 people, and damaged nearly 2,000 homes. Many survivors still navigate the impacts daily as they rebuild and prepare for the next flood.
Flood season is approaching once again. Many residents whose property was destroyed are still awaiting buyouts or structure elevations. For most, such housing solutions won’t be available in time to protect residents against the possibility of another fall flood, so many are taking matters into their own hands.
For the Wittigs and others, repairing their homes and protecting against future floods has been an uphill battle as property buyouts and elevations have been options only in theory. A buyout, offered by the county with federal grant money, would give homeowners a chance to purchase a new home — ideally out of the flood zone — while an elevation would allow homeowners to raise their property’s foundation above anticipated floodwater levels.
“There’s just not a lot of options,” said Roland Middleton, public works program manager for Whatcom County. “People are really waiting on those bigger protections like the buyouts and raising their houses.”
Right now, 44 homes are being considered by the county for the buyout program and 29 for elevations, Middleton said, though more will be considered after grant money goes to properties in the floodway.
However, no buyouts have been completed so far and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said applicants could be waiting until the end of 2023 or early 2024, Middleton noted.
The Whatcom County Public Works River and Flood Division sent buyout requests to residents in the floodway and sent applications from those who responded to FEMA for grant funding approval, said Whatcom County Recovery Manager and former Sumas mayor Kyle Christensen.
Applying for a buyout or elevation and getting on the list is very easy and is just a matter of contacting the River and Flood Division, Christensen said, but the approval process takes a very long time.
Many who choose to elevate or repair their homes on their own make the decision because they don’t want to leave their location or don’t want to rely on a buyout.
Taking construction into their own hands
Wittig said he didn’t receive a buyout or elevation offer, though he heard some of his neighbors had. He has been working with minimal assistance to repair his home, receiving only $3,600 from FEMA for repairs.
The Wittigs will be able to move out of the camper in their yard and back inside around February. But because Wittig hasn’t been able to afford an elevation on his own, they will have to start the arduous repair process from scratch if it floods again.
Fiscal issues like getting insurance money have plagued some like Wittig, and pre-existing mortgages have kept other families from re-entering their homes, Christensen said.
Many residents who’ve begun to repair and raise property on their own felt like they couldn’t wait on FEMA or the city for sufficient funds any longer.
“I kind of thought we were kind of forgotten, hearing everyone getting this help,” said Marissa Cramer, whose house now sits on a new, elevated concrete foundation.
FEMA does not offer a reimbursement option for families who’ve begun elevation independently, Middleton said.
But for families like Cramer’s, waiting for grant money before starting construction wasn’t an option. “We just instantly knew that we don’t want to go through this again,” Cramer said.
Everson city council member Matt Goering’s house was damaged in the November flood and he chose to raise it independently, despite pressure to take a buyout.
“When is the buyout going to happen?” he said. “They wouldn’t give us an answer. And what price are you going to give me for my house? We just couldn’t build a house that we like for even half of the money we’re putting into this.”
A buyout wouldn’t give many property owners enough money to move somewhere outside the floodplain, as many flood-prone houses in Everson and Sumas have a lower market value, Christensen said.
“Having to rebuild the entire thing is super stressful,” Goering said while walking beneath his elevated house. “There’s so much money involved.”
Help isn’t completely absent though, as about 560 families are receiving disaster case management from the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group and Whatcom County, Christensen said. WLTRG, a nonprofit organization previously called Whatcom Strong, will repair 55 homes with $550,000 in donations beginning in October, just in time for flood season.
[Ed.: The Whatcom Community Foundation, through the Resilience Fund of Whatcom Community Foundation, has supported the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group’s efforts to help flood survivors, and currently works with WLTRG to raise funds to continue with this work as well as prepare for future disasters in Whatcom County. (Updated Sept. 19, 2022)]
Wittig has received construction help from his nephew and Christ the King Church. Cramer had church, family and friends and even random passersby help her clean.
“People need lumber; people need siding; people need a contractor; people need drywall,” Goering said. “They need things to fix their house.”
In the meantime
While flood survivors clean, repair and elevate their unlivable homes, most have to make living accommodations for themselves as well.
“Some people are staying with friends,” Christensen said. “Some people are staying with families; some people are staying in RVs off location somewhere. I know that some people stay in hotels. I’ve heard of some people staying in Airbnbs.”
“Unfortunately, public works doesn’t have an answer for [where to go] other than trying to find other grants and other means to find a place for them to go,” Middleton said.
Some houseless individuals like Lisa Ezrre, who lives in an RV in Marietta on the Nooksack River delta, are staying in the flood zone because of their connection to the now-quiet location and community.
All but 12 properties in the historic town of Marietta have been bought out, as it’s a certainty the town will flood if the Nooksack River overtakes the levy that backs up to Ezrre and her neighbors, Middleton said.
Ezrre is ready to mover her RV at any moment to avoid flooding, as are many of her neighbors — one has even lifted his trailer on homemade stilts.
“They’ve made options to sell out, but the prices are so ridiculous that we would never be able to replace having a home,” said Ahmed Artuner who owns one of the only occupied homes on the flood zone stretch of Marine Drive. “So, we just live with the fact that these floods happen and clean up after them.”
But the floods have made many essentially houseless, living in RVs like Ezrre and the Goerings. Wittig and his family were couch-hopping and living at the local KOA campground until they finally secured a discounted camper.
“I promised my wife we’d have a Christmas tree [inside] and we’re not too hot on that at the moment,” Wittig said. “We’ll probably put some cots in here soon, because we’re in the camper and it’s really tight.”
Currently, there are no temporary shelters for flood victims, due to lack of funding, Christensen said, but Whatcom Recovery is researching housing solutions such as temporary emergency housing outside of the floodplain.
WLTRG and FEMA’s housing assistance program have been able to support some housing needs, Christensen said. Though accommodations are few and depend on different financial factors, some have benefitted from rental assistance.
The emotional toll
Stress, fear and anxiety run strong among those hit hard by flooding, especially as flood season approaches, Christensen said.
“For the first few weeks after the flood [in November], you wake up in the middle of the night in tears, you reach around the bed to see if there’s water,” Wittig said. “As we get closer to the date coming up, I’m feeling that same anxiety, that same stress.”
Ezrre said she worries about flooding all the time, concerned about her truck’s ability to tow her RV far enough from the rising water.
“This flood has just been so damaging to people,” Goering said. “[Angel] and I, we’ve been together I don’t know how many years and we never fight — and we fought. The monetary issues and the stress of everything, it was a traumatic experience.”
A shortage of available contractors and the presence of fraudulent ones, along with increased construction supply costs, add to the heartbreak, Middleton said.
As the county and WLTRG provide disaster case management, they’ve tried to support behavioral and emotional health as well, said Christensen. “It’s important for people to know that they’re not alone. People tend to close up because they don’t want to talk about those emotions.”
To manage overwhelming emotions, some turn to faith like Wittig, and look for positives in the experience.
“This has been a long road for us, but I try to look at all the blessings,” Cramer said.
Helping people who have been affected by past floods is one priority. Preventing or at least mitigating future flooding is another. Calls to dredge the Nooksack riverbed are echoed by Wittig, and pleas to divert flood waters from flood zone structures are repeated by Ezrre and Artuner.
Public Works is leading one dredging project that may start within weeks. A proposal to reopen a side channel of the Nooksack River at Strandell, just outside of Everson, went out for a 14-day comment period on Sept. 12. Removing 300-plus yards of sediment from the side channel is expected to increase the river’s carrying capacity and may also provide additional habitat for salmon spawning and rearing.
The county is working to improve flood preparation by ramping up warning and messaging systems and adding two new river gauges to the eight already placed in Whatcom County and monitored by NOAA’s Northwest River Forecast Center.
Whatcom County Recovery has been working on a unified, tentatively tiered messaging system to alert residents of incoming floods several times to encourage packing all the way to evacuation, Christensen said.
“I feel like we’re better prepared this year as far as flood response,” Christensen said. But outside of being mentally prepared, sometimes there isn’t much anyone can do besides await elevations or buyouts, he added.
Residents should know where to go if they get evacuated, how to handle debris and should possibly acquire sandbags, Middleton said.
“These conversations are happening with regard to managing the river and mitigating flood damage as best as possible,” Middleton said. “And finding better, faster ways to do buyout programs and better identification of where the flood waters end up going and doing what we can to minimize that.”
While mitigation and housing solutions are underway, Whatcom County residents watch the river levels and like Ezrre hope that this fall doesn’t bring another flood.
— Reported by Kai Uyehara
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