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Originally published December 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 9, 2007 at 3:47 PM

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Christmastime in Lewis County

A week after the flooding in Lewis County began last week, piles of debris still line the street corners and residents — their hoods...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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What a storm!

A week after the flooding in Lewis County began last week, piles of debris still line the street corners and residents — their hoods and scarves pulled up against the cold, hunch like muddied ghosts — still spend their days carrying armfuls of wet bedding, pillows, mud-crusted stuffed animals from their homes. Behind them, their houses glow with red, green and white lights.

It is, after all, Christmastime. Even here.

It's an eerie juxtaposition: Outside one home in South Centralia, there is a pile of furniture, carpeting and clothing on the curb. Behind it, a sign reads, in bright green, glittering letters, "Happy Holidays!"

A Santa Claus figurine, draped in red garland, is splattered with mud up to his waist. He holds a plastic candle up to the gathering dusk.

The holidays are a time for being at home with friends and family, for shopping and giving gifts. This year, the residents of Lewis County will face challenges in all those departments. While the estimated number of severely and lightly damaged homes and barns in Lewis County hovers around 800, according to the Salvation Army and the Lewis County Emergency Operations Center, the number of local businesses that have sustained damage remains unknown.

Both the Centralia Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is leading the relief effort within the City of Centralia, and the Lewis County Emergency Operations Center are working to compile an estimate on how much damage, and loss of inventory and revenue, local businesses have endured in the past week.

"We really don't know yet," says John Panco, of the Centralia EOC. "We hope to have a better idea by Monday."

Meanwhile, the number of businesses that remain dark every night is staggering.

The flood hit at the worst possible time for store owners in the region, says Pam Nielsen, co-owner of a local craft store, The Scrappy Stamper.

"We just got all our new inventory in — and the more expensive stuff, too, for gifts and things for Christmas. If it had come a month earlier or later, it wouldn't have been as bad," she says. She estimates there is at least $60,000 worth of lost inventory, revenue and damage to their store. She doesn't think they'll reopen in time for Christmas shopping, the busiest time of year for their 2-year-old business.

Like most other local store owners in Lewis County, she and Peterson did not have flood insurance, since many of the areas that sustained feet of water last week were unaffected during the 1996 flood. "The building's never flooded before," she said.

Peterson and Nielson paid themselves for the first time last month. Twelve-hundred dollars each, that's it, she says. "We're not a big business. We're not making a lot of money. If we don't get help, we're going to go under."

Whether or not local business owners will receive financial help from the state or federal governments remains up in the air. According to Brad Ford, the financial director at the Centralia Emergency Operations Center, a lot depends on whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency is able to expand its support to the region. That, in turn, depends on the amount of damage the cities and counties report.

"This is not a rich town," says Ford. "We don't have a lot of wealth. This kind of thing has a ripple effect." Lewis County's per capita income for 2004 was just over $24,000, with nearly 10 percent unemployed in 2002.

Some local residents, such as Gayle Brown of Centralia, who works as a night custodian at a school, were unable to go to work last week. "Yeah I'm worried about not working. I got to get back there as soon as I get this done," she said, indicating the mud she's scraping out of her basement with a snow shovel. "This isn't the type of community where people can just take a few days off work and still make ends meet."

The only business open in the strip-mall between Centralia and Chehalis is a parking-lot Christmas tree stand, the Northwest Tree Farm. Hans Jorgensen tends the trees.

Last week, he lost his entire lot — around 200 trees — and his trailer, when the parking lot near the Lewis County Fair Grounds flooded, he says. He estimates around $8,000 worth of loss, "which is a really big deal when you're a seasonal business. This is it. We only get one chance — Christmas," he says. "Happy holidays, I guess."

Down the road in Chehalis, a line of relief trucks rumble by, followed by a Washington State Guard Hummer, its flanks stained with mud. When the dust clears, the air smells strangely, faintly of peppermint. A light, cold smell, reminding you of a hundred Christmases that have come before. It's wafting over from the peppermint plant outside town.

"Let it Snow" plays tinnily from car window.

And this morning, snow began to fall.

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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