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Thursday, October 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Residents wade back into flooded homes

By Rachel Tuinstra
Seattle Times staff reporter

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Gene Archer surveys the lake in his Burlington yard yesterday. He's lived there for 28 years and experienced several floods. Some say the floods in 1990 and 1995 were even worse than this one.
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Tuesday evening, the Archer family stood on raised railroad tracks, watching as the swollen Skagit River turned their back yard into a lake and flooded their Burlington home, inch by inch.

They watched it creep up their front steps and slide under their front door.

"You think, 'Oh God, it's flooding, what can I do?' So you get your game plan together and you start moving things. And then you realize the water is coming," Dale Archer said.

"You're hoping it stops before it gets to the house. And then it's 5 inches from your house, and you're hoping it stops before it gets inside. And then it's 2 inches from your front door, and you hope it doesn't stay long. You're hoping it dries out fast."

The Archers and their neighbors were some of the hardest hit by the floods brought on by record rainfall throughout Western Washington this week.

The small tract of homes where the Archers live is nestled behind sprawling potato and broccoli fields, which abut the Skagit River. When the river swells over its banks, as it did Tuesday, it turns these fields and everything within reach into a lake.

Yesterday, the Archers and their neighbors began the long, hard work to reclaim their homes from the bloated river, all the while nervously watching dark clouds and wondering if they would bring even more rain.

"There's a cloud system coming in, and if that's all rain, we might not be able to live here for a month," April Archer said yesterday while taking a break from using a wet/dry vacuum on her soaked carpets.

Days of steady rain

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Melissa Trial walks across her flooded yard in Burlington yesterday after heavy rains caused the nearby Skagit River to overflow. The Skagit crested around midnight Tuesday at 36.2 feet, more than 8 feet above flood level. Officials estimated about 3,000 people were evacuated in Skagit County.

It all began when a steady rain over the weekend gave residents cause for concern, she said. Saturday and Sunday they monitored weather reports.

It was obvious, April Archer said, that this was going to be bad.

The deluge came on Monday, swelling the Skagit and later flooding Burlington and Hamilton upstream.

Dale Archer's uncle, Gene Archer, lives in the house behind theirs and has seen what damage the river can do, but he's philosophical these days.

"In 1990, when it flooded, I had a heart attack," Dale Archer said. "I'm not going to let that happen this time. I look at it now like, it's just a house."

Near the Archers' homes, Melissa Trial and her mother, Jean Booth, each have homes, which yesterday looked like islands. Inside, mother and daughter sloshed on sopping carpets. River silt covered everything.

"People at work were joking, 'Let's go fishing at Melissa's,' until they realized how serious it was," Trial said as she watched lawn furniture, a ladder and old tires float in her mother's back yard.

When a flood seemed imminent by Monday afternoon, the Sedro Woolley Fire Department came by to tell residents they should evacuate.

Many of them started piling mattresses, furniture, clothes and toys on top of sawhorses, plastic milk crates and cinder blocks to keep them out of the grip of the river. Many worked late into the night as the rain continued to fall. Some finally drifted into an uneasy sleep for a few hours.

On Tuesday, the river water came, crawling into back yards, pooling in ditches, filling streets and entering homes, including the Archers'.

Many people in this area talk of the floods in 1990 and 1995. Those were bad, they say, maybe even a little worse than this one.

You either accept that the river does this every so often, or you get out, they say.

"I'm the one who wanted to buy this house," April Archer said. "I love this house, I love this location. But now I'm starting to reconsider that."

Clearing way for aid

Yesterday, Gov. Gary Locke declared a state of emergency in Skagit, Whatcom, Clallam, Snohomish, Mason, Jefferson and Kitsap counties, freeing state resources to help people hit by floods. He plans to tour Skagit County, one of the most heavily damaged areas.

Officials with the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were planning to fan out to those counties today to assess damage, then submit reports to Locke. The governor can petition President Bush to declare Washington a disaster area, which could lead to federal funds.

In Mount Vernon on Tuesday night and into yesterday morning, there was an almost-festive atmosphere as hundreds of people showed up to watch the Skagit crest downtown.

They milled around the revetment, a ¾-mile stretch of public parking and also the biggest buffer between the water and downtown businesses. About 1,000 volunteers had filled 100,000 sandbags. As crews plugged leaks in the makeshift wall, people joked about selling hot dogs and popcorn.

To everyone's relief, around midnight Tuesday, the Skagit crested at 36.2 feet — more than 8 feet above flood level, but 2 feet less than expected. The sandbags were stacked to 38 feet.

"There was no overtopping of the dike system. Everything held together like it was supposed to," said Don McKeehen, spokesman for Skagit County Emergency Operations Center and a longtime veteran of flood fights.

Hundreds stayed in shelters

McKeehen said it will take several days to assess the damage to the city. Water levels were similar in 1990 and 1995, he said, although the flooding in 1990 lasted about three weeks and blew apart a dike.

More than 400 people spent Tuesday night in Skagit County shelters. About half of them had returned to their homes by last night. Officials estimated about 3,000 people were evacuated in Skagit County, and the Red Cross estimated about 6,700 were in need of food or shelter statewide. Several schools operated on delayed schedules.

Laura Henderson, who owns a bridal store in downtown Mount Vernon, said she fielded calls yesterday from women worried about their dresses.

"We were getting calls from brides who are getting married this weekend," Henderson said. "We told them everything would be OK and calmed them down."

Judith Kesselring, who owns an interior-design store in the same area, was anxious about what was happening to her store but joked about how the flooding might give her more customers.

Rivers set flood records

According to the National Weather Service in Seattle, four rivers in Western Washington set records for flooding: the Elwha near Port Angeles; the Skokomish near Potlatch, Mason County; the Stillaguamish near Arlington, Snohomish County; and the Skagit near Concrete, Skagit County.

In Snohomish County, a vast lake had formed yesterday just south of Stanwood and Highway 532, the main road from Interstate 5 to Camano Island. The previous day, it had taken barely an hour for the floodwater to cover what had been a mile-wide open field there.

By yesterday morning, all King County rivers had fallen below flood-warning thresholds.

Some experts said that as bad as the flooding was, it could have been a lot worse.

Dave Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, said the heavy rains came while the river valleys were relatively dry and little snow was in the mountains.

"You can probably just be thankful that this storm didn't happen in January or February," he said.

If it had come in the winter, he said, melting snow would have run into already-saturated valleys, and the water wouldn't have had anything to soak into.

Seattle Times reporters Michael Ko, Peyton Whitely, Ian Ith and Christopher Schwarzen contributed to this report.

Rachel Tuinstra: 206-464-2580 or rtuinstra@seattletimes.com.


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