The town of La Conner has flooded many times but the flood of Dec. 27 took residents and local officials by surprise.
That morning, water from the Swinomish Channel flooded the downtown area with as much as two feet of water, town councilman Rick Dole said.
The arts community with shops and restaurants along its waterfront sits between the mouth of the South Fork of the Skagit River and the Swinomish Channel, which connects Skagit and Padilla bays. At the lowest point of the river delta, the town had in the past suffered major floods due to dike failures along the river.
Flood water had never come from the channel. “Long-time residents of La Conner say the last time they remember flooding of downtown La Conner was about 30 years ago,” said Dole. “ But it was not as bad as Dec. 27.”
With a population of less than 1,000 residents, La Conner has a welcoming, small-town feel. Across the channel is the reservation of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
Albie Bjornberg, co-owner of the waterfront restaurant Nell Thorn, said water was three inches deep in his restaurant. “It took my whole team from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to clean it all out,” he said.
Handmade, a lifestyle goods shop across the street from Nell Thorn, suffered significant flood damage. Owner Robin Bradley said the store remained open while staff cleared several inches of water on the floor. The community came together to help clean it out, she said, and “even just their kind words” helped tremendously.
The flooding reached as far inland as 4th Street along Morris, Center, State and Caledonia streets at both the north and south ends of town, said Dole. The middle section along 1st street has elevations varying by several feet which is why some waterfront buildings flooded and others did not.
La Conner public works officer Scott Thomas said that the water coming from the channel was highest to the south at the lowest spots of the town, at the boat ramp and near Gilkey Square.
“The water level varied, with most flooded homes receiving 10 to 12 inches inside,” Cole said.
Skagit County estimated that there was at least $1.8 million in damage and that 24 of the 30 buildings damaged were residences.
Extreme level of risk
On Dec. 27, a high (king) tide of 11.6 feet, heavy rainfall, low barometric pressure, high winds and a storm surge combined to bring flood waters unexpectedly over the banks of the channel into the town.
The 2016 La Conner Emergency Response plan had identified Skagit River dike breaks as the main cause for La Conner’s major floods. Swinomish Channel floods were expected to cause minimal damage and be short-term (1 to 2 hours).
Risk Factor, a website gauging flood, wildfire and heat risk, rates La Conner as having an extreme risk of flooding over the next 30 years, with an estimated 79% of properties impacted.
The town learned from the December flood that it needs to be prepared for future floods that might originate from the channel.
Dole said that the town council last month passed an ordinance for an Emergency Management Commission that will develop ways to prevent future flood damage, improve flood-prevention infrastructure and keep a close watch on factors like the ones that caused the flood on Dec. 27.
The commission, made up of councilmembers and citizens will work with state legislators on natural disasters and consider early warning system, reported the La Conner Weekly News.
“The entire town staff and council are very concerned about climate change and we realize events like that in December will become more common,” he said. “Climate change is real and we will do what is within our power to help slow it down.”
— Reported by Ava Ronning