November 17, 2022
After the flood: still rebuilding amid uncertainty, anxiety—and community
Kai Uyehara

Ryan Wittig has had help from friends and neighbors in rebuilding his family’s Sumas home after last November’s flooding. The home now boasts insulation, wiring and wallboard. After a conversation in September with Salish Current’s reporter, Wittig said, a somber face felt natural. “But today,” with progress made, he said, “there’s only smiles.” (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

November 17, 2022
After the flood: still rebuilding amid uncertainty, anxiety—and community
Kai Uyehara

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Editor’s note: Salish Current continues its coverage of Nooksack flooding by revisiting the people and the places written about in earlier stories:
Flood survivors face next flood season while awaiting long-term fixes,” Sept. 15, 2022
Flood recovery continues in Sumas, seven months on,” June 24, 2022
Whatcom farmers face manure management challenges after flooding,” Dec. 22, 2021
Devastated after flooding, north Whatcom County moves into recovery mode,” Dec. 3, 2021

A year after flooding devasted the Nooksack Valley, recovery and preparation are still ongoing—along with occasional encounters with anxiety for survivors.

Ryan Wittig’s home was flooded with three feet of water one year ago this week, a month after he and his family bought it. The house on Morton Street in Sumas had to be torn apart, and the Wittigs moved into a camper in the backyard. 

A year later, Wittig has finished the insulation, wiring, HVAC system and half the plumbing. He hopes to get his family sleeping inside next week and spending Christmas inside. 

“We probably won’t have carpets and trim and all that happy stuff in here, but we’ll have a kitchen and we’ll have wallboard,” he said. “It’ll feel like a home would, just won’t look like a pretty home yet.”

The stud boards, exposed only months ago, are insulated and marked with colorful hand-written messages from volunteers who’ve helped Wittig rebuild his home. Some are playful (“Hanson was here”) and others encouraging (“Not from us, through us! Praise the Lord.”). 

Friends and neighbors helping rebuild the Wittig home have left messages of encouragement on the home’s inner walls. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

“If [flooding] ever happens again and whether it’s me or somebody in the future has to open the walls again, I want to show them the support and love and that they can do it,” Wittig said.

Disaster knows no boundaries

Two rounds of flooding on Nov. 14 and 28 damaged more than 2,000 homes and businesses in the Nooksack Valley, creating $150 million in structural damages, claiming the life of Jose Angel Garcia-Pacheco and leaving 50 families displaced and 564 in need of disaster aid. 

North of the border, 20,000 people in southern British Columbia were displaced and five people died, along with hundreds of thousands of chickens and thousands of livestock. Damages soared into the billions as flood waters caused landslides, washed out highways and flooded homes and farmland. 

According to Whatcom County, flood-impacted households have received $4.75 million from the State of Washington, $2.38 million from the Whatcom Community Foundation, $8 million from the Small Business Administration and over $500,000 from World Renew, and over 2,000 households have received more than $5.5 million from FEMA.

But not everyone got relief.

Everson city council member Matt Goering’s house was among those flooded but Goering said he hasn’t received a penny of Washington relief funds. Eager to rebuild and prepare for future floods, the Goerings paid out of pocket to elevate their home and hope to be reimbursed one day.

Goering commends the mayors of Sumas, Nooksack, Everson and Lynden who have pushed for dredging, levees and other preparative measures to reduce flooding, but he feels such changes are caught in “state-limbo,” and that no tangible flood mitigation is being done.

Whatcom County Public Works created a side channel by scraping out sediment and vegetation along the Nooksack River in the Strandell area near Everson to allow overflow when the river crests. The county also installed flood gauges in the Everson area of the river to provide an earlier alert for flooding. 

“For the people that got six inches of water in their house, if that takes six inches of water in their house out of their house, then that is a win,” Goering said of the side channel project. “But the people who got six feet of water in their house or two feet of water in their house, nothing’s done.”

Controversy around dredging the Nooksack echoes through Whatcom County as some call for it, while others warn of the impacts on salmon spawning grounds. County officials have ruled out dredging as an effective solution. 

The upstairs of Everson city council member Matt Goering’s home was visible through beams beneath a newly elevated floor when visited in September by Salish Current’s reporter. This week, Goering gave a tour of the upstairs and said he felt confident he and his wife would be able to escape their RV and stay inside the house by next month. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

Local aid there first

The community has been stepping in before federal and state flood mitigation and housing solutions.

Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group (WLTRG), a community-based relief and resource coordination organization once called Whatcom Strong, has been deploying volunteers, workers and disaster case managers to aid survivors, businesses and communities, and 564 households rebuild or search for new housing.

WLTRG isn’t a government agency, which allows its work to be done quicker, said WLTRG vice president Ashley Butenschoen. 

Using funds from local donations and Whatcom Community Foundation, WLTRG aids survivors with construction work and materials, moving, children’s supplies, cleanup and replacing belongings of unhoused folk affected by the flood. The group devotes its services heavily towards their “first 55 project,” which targets 55 households with the most need, many of whom are below the poverty line. 

WLTRG is helping Wittig as he continues construction, planning to insulate the underside of his house and supply a dishwasher, refrigerator, stove and microwave for his rebuilt kitchen. 

Wittig has also received help from others. A friend from Northwest Energy Systems helped him install new gas lines and an HVAC duct, using materials the business donated. A plumber is helping with finish plumbing, and Wittig’s new employer, Mission Realty, will install the sheetrock Wittig received from the owner of Woods Coffee in Lynden along with donated power tools to replace the ones he lost in the flood. 

Goering has gotten help from contractors, and power and gas companies who are expediting their construction process Goering is hoping to move in by the end of December after utilities are connected.

As soon as flood waters receded, volunteers came from all over the country to Sumas offering to help. A youth group of 12-year-olds and their pastor from Gig Harbor cleared mud from under Wittig’s house and removed his insulation and a wall. 

Despite the extensive damage to his home, the loss of his belongings and the ensuing financial stress, the help and generosity of the Whatcom community makes Wittig want to stick around. 

“Everybody wants to help—it makes me real glad to call this place home,” Wittig said. “The people are genuine.”

Churches step up 

Many churches and parishioners helped with relief efforts, many working with WLTRG. Over $3 million of everyday items like diapers, clothes and baby formula were donated through church resource centers, Butenschoen said. 

Tim Sivo lives on Marine Drive in an RV he’s elevated six feet above ground to avoid flood waters. To his left is a shed where he’s built elevated storage, and behind him are bundles of firewood and assorted items tied down in anticipation of a flood event. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

The Sumas Adventist Christian Church (Sumas AC), led by senior pastor Chad Hammond, administers a relief fund for flood survivors, said associate pastor Carl Crouse. The church also hosts flood survivor support groups.

During the flood, Sumas residents evacuated to Sumas AC until the church itself flooded and they had to shelter elsewhere. Hammond left his flooding parsonage to help survivors evacuate and was the first person to check in on Wittig when the flood ceased. 

“Right after the flood, we tried to figure out, do we default on our mortgage? Do we just leave?” Wittig said. “But it was after the community surrounded us and people were showing love, we thought, how could we leave a place like this?”

Wittig now wants to show Whatcom County the same support it showed him. Among other preparations, Wittig is looking to buy a motor for a small boat sitting in his backyard so he might use it to save neighbors from rising waters in the event of another flood.

Emotional weightlifting 

Survivors are repairing and preparing not only physically, but emotionally as well, and Crouse aims to aid that process with his new book, The Waters Are Rising.

The book collects stories of about 50 survivors around Sumas and photos of about 30 more. Crouse sought to document the drama and tragedy of the disaster after hearing stories from survivors sheltering at his church’s resource center.

“To commemorate this day is a good thing because it did change people’s lives,” Crouse said. “You can’t pretend it’s not there. It brings it back in a healthy way because there’s nothing wrong with tears.”

The book’s title from the quote, “The waters are rising, but so am I,” by Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army. Among the stories, Crouse said commonalities he observed were accounts of evacuating at a moment’s notice, the strength people mustered for their families’ sakes and the surprising power of the water. 

‘The Waters Are Rising’ celebrates the community’s support and resilience via the telling of flood survivors’ stories. (Courtesy image)

Wittig shared his family’s story and a picture in Crouse’s book. He had a hard time reading it, but, he said, “Just reading the stories, the inspiration that people took and how they’re both coping with it, but also what they’ve gained from it, helps me.”

Goering decided to preserve the book in a wall of his rebuilt home. The reminder of such loss is also a reminder of resilience, Goering said.

Crouse plans on giving the book to survivors for free and donating proceeds of sales and book-signings to WLTRG. Beyond bringing awareness to the stories of survivors, Crouse is available for those in need going forward in the rebuilding process. 

Commemorating a year’s passing

To commemorate last November’s flood, Crouse said that Sumas AC is hosting a “Celebration of Our Communities” Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 19, with speakers Kyle Christensen, mayor of Sumas during the flood; John Perry, mayor of Everson at the time; and Hammond. Crouse and Wittig said they hope volunteers who helped after the flood will attend and greet families they haven’t seen for a year. 

This week marks a moment of celebration and of fear for survivors.

“I was a little anxious about the [anniversary] as it’s coming around, but now that it’s here, I didn’t even have to worry about it,” Wittig said. “That was a hundred-year flood. Why was I stressed that it was going to happen at 101 years, too?

But November came around with rain on its first weekend with flood watches issued by the U.S. National Weather Service for that Thursday through Saturday. 

As the river was getting high, Goering said he called everyone he knew who had anything to do with the river and asked for their flooding predictions; he even put an alert on his phone for every foot the river rose. Goering says he shares the fear and PTSD of survivors who panic each time it rains as they check the river gauges and social media for updates.

In Marietta, on Marine Drive, Tim Sivo stayed up all night and watched for flood waters. Sivo lives in a trailer, like many of his neighbors in a near-ghost town that’s been otherwise cleared because it’s near the floodway. 

Sivo’s trailer sits on a six-foot ramp made of salvaged materials protected from floodwaters.

Despite the anxieties, Crouse believes a flood like last year’s is unlikely based on what he has heard in reports from Lynden weather chaser Randy Small. “I’ve been able to … give some assurance that I don’t think it will flood like that again,” Crouse said.

Lisa Ezzre, a neighbor of Sivo on Marine Drive, said she doesn’t feel panicked about having to leave the flood-prone area, but she does feel panicked knowing it often floods to some degree in her area this time of year. 

Ezzre watches the river gauges and makes sure to keep as many belongings inside her trailer as possible, leaving just propane tanks, her motorcycle, raft and vehicles outside in case she needs a speedy evacuation. If something can’t fit inside or in an elevated place, it shouldn’t be held onto. 

“It’s just a known thing: it starts to flood, you know it’s going to flood,” Ezzre said. “You get things up high and you get … out of here.”

Preparing for the worst

Lisa Ezzre stands outside her trailer on Marine Drive in Marietta, which has been mostly cleared of its housed residents because of its flood-prone location. Ezzre keeps only a few of her belongings outside so she’s ready to pick up at a moment’s notice. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2022)

Recovery from the flood is a long haul, possibly three to five years, and it comes with the understanding that another flood event may happen before rebuilding is complete, Butenschoen said: “Disasters … seem to come in twos and threes.”

In preparation for another flood, Sivo has offered to elevate his neighbors’ trailers like his own. 

Ezzre has even considered making her trailer into a barge, attaching barrels and a platform to her trailer so it’ll float because her truck might not be able to move the trailer. 

Sivo has built a portable shower trailer with working hot water, and has decked out a trailer with a fireplace, salvaged from the last flood. Sivo ties his firewood and other loose items down with fishnets and strengthened the dike near his trailer where the river spilled over last year. He is ready to move vehicles up high and store neighbors’ belongings in a loft he built in a shed next door to his trailer. 

Wittig has made his whole family bug-out bags to match his own. They’re filled with food, water, emergency radios, rope, knives, matches, lighters and medical kits.

Whatcom County’s annual “Flooding in Whatcom County” newsletter provides information on flood preparation and what to do before, during and after a flood event. Residents can also watch for 72-hour notice flood alerts from the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System and AlertSense.

Positioned for the next big one

“I believe that Whatcom County is in a better position now than it was a year ago because of the number of people that were impacted and because of the level of what happened,” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County sheriff’s office division of emergency management.

Local organizations like the Volunteer Mobilization Center organize volunteers, and Search and Rescue holds trainings every two weeks, Gargett said. WLTRG, in partnership with the sheriff’s office, is discussingtheir role in staffing emergency flood shelters in the future.

The sheriff’s office also administers the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) which has smaller teams throughout Whatcom County, including Point Roberts and the East Valley. The program has run since the ’80s and was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been reactivated with a new team in Everson. 

Community members involved in CERT are trained to relieve first responders during neighborhood emergencies by providing neighborhood support, Gargett said. CERT recently staffed emergency shelters in Everson, Nooksack and Lynden, serving coffee, welcoming visitors and being a point of contact. During a flood, CERT will also assist the Whatcom County Fire District One with damage assessments, call intake and processing, and updating situation status boards, among other responsibilities. 

The sheriff’s office hosts an eight-week class covering a wide range of emergency skills which they hope to offer once a quarter. Many CERT members are cross trained in Search and Rescue or amateur radio.

There are 2,500 trained CERT members since the program started, Gargett said, but only about 400 are able to support emergency operations; of that core group, only 50 to 100 are ready to respond in an emergency—although in a countywide emergency, there may be 150 to 200 available. 

I don’t think you ever have enough people,” Gargett said. 

Community interest in disaster aid volunteering has been high after the recent flood, Gargett said, but there is less participation among active and certified volunteers over time.“ That level of preparedness falls off when nothing happens,” Gargett said,

Disasters, however, really show communities the value of preparation. “Everybody has a role to play in emergency preparedness. You do have a responsibility to ensure that you’re able to better prepare yourself in the event of any disaster, and then that expands to the family unit and then that becomes a community thing.”

“There has been an absolute outpouring from the community, but it’s started to wean off,” Butenschoen said. “The unfortunate thing is that people just think that life has gone back to normal. We are trying to focus on getting people to realize in this one-year anniversary that this isn’t over and we still need the community’s help in a big way.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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