Ice jams, snow melt, king tide combine in Marietta flood deluge - Salish Current
January 13, 2023
Ice jams, snow melt, king tide combine in Marietta flood deluge
Kai Uyehara

Marietta resident Tim Sivo paddles through freezing floodwater as it recedes from its six-foot depth. Sivo was not at home when the flood occurred Christmas morning so was unable to move his belongings to safety. (Courtesy photo)

January 13, 2023
Ice jams, snow melt, king tide combine in Marietta flood deluge
Kai Uyehara

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Lisa Ezrre awoke Christmas morning to six feet of muddy river water littered with ice chunks gushing into her neighborhood, inundating the RV she calls home, flooding the car she planned to escape in and drenching all her belongings. 

A combination of ice jams, melting snow and a king tide measuring 9.8 feet contributed to sudden flooding that morning in the north Whatcom County area of Marietta and along Marine Drive, a known flood zone, where Ezrre lives in a small RV community. 

High tides also flooded several low-lying areas including Sandy Point, Birch Bay and Gooseberry Point in the days after and led to several road closures. 

Around 1:30 a.m. on Christmas, the Nooksack River was rising rapidly, said Deb Slater of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. Although flooding in Marietta wasn’t certain at that hour, deputies notified residents by using loudspeakers and going door-to-door to recommend evacuation. 

Lisa Ezrre stands in the doorway of a home which is elevated high enough off the ground that the sudden flooding on Christmas morning did not make it inside. Ezrre was rescued from the flood from where she’s standing. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Flooding began a short while later. Six people on Marine Drive were rescued by boat between 5:30 and 7:45 a.m., in a coordinated effort between Whatcom County Public Works, sheriff’s deputies and search-and-rescue volunteers, Slater said. 

“I woke up Christmas morning and looked outside and the water was all the way up,” Ezrre said. 

Ezrre sheltered on the porch of Ahmet “Turk” Artuner’s former home on Marine Drive, which stands elevated above a courtyard filled with his belongings, she said. Artuner, a man previously interviewed by Salish Current, had passed away days before the flood; Ezrre had taken up residence there with permission from Artuner’s daughter. 

About two hours later, Ezrre said, search-and-rescue personnel arrived. She climbed over the porch railing into their boat and was taken to dry land.

On Marine Drive, almost every dwelling is on wheels. Homes in the floodplain were abandoned after residents were paid to leave the almost-yearly-inundated area, but a community of people remain, living in RVs and cars. They are always prepared to leave, to pack up and haul out their belongings as soon as the flood gauges indicate danger. 

“I usually get out of there,” said Ezrre who’d escaped the flood in November 2021 by hauling her trailer out. On Christmas Eve, “I was watching the flood meter. The high tide was at 11 [p.m.]. I waited until like one o’clock in the morning and I could see that the water was no longer rising, and I went to bed.” 

But Ezrre and her neighbors were asleep and unaware when flooding suddenly began, and were unable to follow their usual plan to vacate the area and return when waters receded. 

Deputies had included nonpermanent residences in their door-to-door visitations and loudspeaker announcements, Slater said, and deputies continued to call out and knock on doors while rescuing survivors. An Alert Sense Message was sent at 5:09 a.m. to people in that area to call 911 for evacuation. Whatcom County activated 72-hour notice flood alerts from the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System and Alert Sense put in place after the November 2021 flood. 

But Ezrre and her neighbor Tim Sivo said they weren’t approached at all and didn’t receive any alerts.

“Had I had enough time, I totally would have got all this out,” Ezrre said. “We lost everything.” 

Assessing the losses

Sivo was packing his assets into a truck in preparation for another possible round of flooding on Friday as Ezrre gave a tour of the damages. 

Household belongings are scattered around Lisa Ezrre’s damaged RV to dry out. She will have to scrap her RV and car, leaving only clothes and a waterlogged bed to her name. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Ezrre’s car was filled with river water and mud. So was Artuner’s, which she had been taking care of. Piles of wet clothes surrounded the entrance to her gutted RV and around her inoperable motorcycle. Her furniture and all of her electronics including her solar panel, RV batteries and chargers are ruined. 

After she was rescued by boat, Ezrre was transported to the edge of the flooded area, near Bayon Road, a block away from her RV; search-and-rescue personnel asked if she had someone to come get her before leaving, Ezrre said.

Ezrre’s mother picked her up and let her stay with her a couple of nights before Ezrre went to a temporary Red Cross shelter for flood survivors at the Cordata Presbyterian Church in Bellingham. 

Ezrre and Sivo each received a little over $500 from the Red Cross for general assistance and $50 vouchers to Goodwill, but Ezrre said assistance beyond that has been hard to come by. Ezrre is waiting for relocation assistance and help getting propane heating from the Opportunity Council. She said she didn’t qualify for other resources recommended by the Red Cross after she registered her losses. Without a house, programs like weatherization are irrelevant, Ezrre said. 

Because her community is in the floodplain without flood insurance, it’s difficult getting assistance from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], Ezzre said. Most of her neighbors are without internet access or electronics because they can’t afford or can’t install it, so they can’t apply for aid without someone bringing them paperwork directly. 

“So basically, being poor screwed you out of being able to get assistance because you don’t have the ability to get it, and no one wants to come down and bring you the papers,” Ezrre said.

Ezrre said she and her neighbors haven’t received assistance similar to November 2021 flood survivors upriver, so she’s started a GoFundMe in hopes her community will help. 

Longer, deeper flooding

Marietta flooded when water from the Nooksack breached the Marine Drive levee around 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, said Gary Goodall, a Whatcom County Engineer. 

As high tide and ice flow combined with melting snow, the swollen Nooksack River breached the Marine Drive levee. The levee has undergone emergency repairs that finished this week. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2023)

“The entire rock/earth structure was destroyed along 200 feet of its length and can no longer provide adequate flood protection,” said Roland Middleton of Whatcom County Public Works in an email. “Due to the breach, floodwaters were likely deeper in these two locations (Slater Road and Marietta) and affected the areas for a longer duration than would be typical for a flood of this size.” 

The levee was breached adjacent to a section that was rebuilt after the November 2021 flood. “The rest of the levee is in poor shape from the ice flood, which hasn’t happened for a long time,” Goodall said. In 37 years working for Whatcom County, he said, he has not seen force and volume at this level — powerful enough to strip the bark from trees hit by the sharp ice propelled by floodwaters tearing through. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed emergency repairs at the breach after the November 2021 flood, and the county had been pursuing additional permanent repairs there and at other locations, Middleton said.

“The temporary repairs installed by the USACE and county prior to the flood would likely have fared far better during that flood event if not for the damaging ice,” Middleton said.

“They said it was good for flood season, but obviously not,” Ezrre said. “The levee failed and ‘failed’ means that it didn’t live up to expectations.”

The Corps of Engineers completed emergency repairs Sunday on the damaged 200-foot section of the levee, and the county is pursuing an emergency contract to hire consultants to survey the additional damage to the levee and design a permanent repair for construction this summer, Middleton said.

When enough is enough

Residents of Marine Drive stay in the floodplain for many reasons, such as not being able to park their RVs anywhere else for fear of towing, sentimental connection to the area and commitment to the community they’re built. 

Tim Sivo gathers belongings that were damaged in the flood, as he prepares to move away from the floodplain. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2023)

“I think I was here because of Turk,” said Ezrre, standing across from the chair Artuner often sat in and passed away in. “I suppose I could have left earlier, but I just can’t do it anymore, especially if [flooding] is going to happen like this and you can’t get a warning.”

Now, Ezrre is hoping to leave for Oak Harbor where she has a living arrangement in the works. But she can’t leave until her damaged belongings are cleared, and she still has no transportation to relocate, she said. 

Sivo has prepared for flooding all the time he’s lived on Marine Drive by elevating his RV onto a ramp to be above flooding, building up the berm separating the area from a channel off the Nooksack and even constructing a portable shower trailer. But he, too, has had enough.

While packing away his belongings to prepare for possible flooding Friday, Sivo said he won’t be bringing his things back. If floodwaters come, Sivo said he will come back to his trailer after they recede, then try to secure a safe place to live. Sivo is unsure he’ll be able to afford a move after getting very little monetary assistance from the Red Cross which he said helped, but only for short term repairs. 

“This was everything I had, it took me a long time to accumulate all this, living in the bushes,” Ezrre said, standing among her ruined belongings and grounded vehicles. She had become homeless after a house fire. Now, she said, “I’m basically homeless again.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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