"Broken" communication between dam operator and local governments exacerbated Pacific flood
Substantial changes in the depth of the White River contributed to flooding in the city of Pacific last January, but poor communication between King County and the operator of a dam upstream made a bad situation worse.
Times consumer affairs Reporter
Communication breakdowns between emergency personnel at the local and federal level and a lack of awareness about changes in the depth of the White River led to $15 million in flood damage in Pacific in January, according to a report released Tuesday.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which produced the report, also said it didn't know how bad the flooding was for almost a day, in part, because "no sense of emergency was communicated at any level" after it released water from Mud Mountain Dam into the White River.
The corps met in January to review its response to the Jan. 8 flood, which damaged 112 homes and 10 businesses in Pacific, a city of 6,000 in South King County.
King County's Office of Emergency Management did not write its own "after-action report" on lessons learned because it participated in the corps' review, a spokeswoman said.
As a result of discussions with the corps, the county emergency office has updated its emergency-contact lists to ensure it has correct phone numbers for other agencies and for people who requested notification when flood conditions are predicted, spokeswoman Lynne Miller said.
The county also has called for better record keeping to ensure that information in an emergency gets logged and passed to the appropriate people, she said.
At the time of the flooding, no one from the corps was in the county's Emergency Coordinating Center, and the phone contact the county had was for a corps employee working on flooding in Snohomish County.
Miller said the county has instituted new procedures for bringing the appropriate people into the center during floods and other emergencies, and the corps said it will automatically dispatch someone to the appropriate county before releasing water from its dams.
The corps of engineers' report said the White River had lost 6 feet of depth — about 30 percent of its capacity — at one location below the Mud Mountain Dam.
But the corps was unaware the river had become more shallow in recent years, so it miscalculated the amount of water it could release from the dam without causing serious flooding downstream, the report said.
The miscalculation was due largely to a lack of reliable gauges along the river.
The corps didn't know the extent of the flooding until the following day, when the corps' Seattle district commander got an aerial view of the situation and ordered flows reduced.
The report said "the feedback loop from the local communities back to the (corps) is considered broken."
Patricia Graesser, public-affairs chief for the corps' Seattle district, said Pacific's mayor called King County's Emergency Coordination Center to report widespread flooding.
The county then phoned a corps liaison who was working another flood in Snohomish County.
The liaison called the corps' emergency-operations center, leaving a message that "the water in the White River at Pacific is a little higher than normal."
The liaison also left the number to call at King County's operations center, but when the corps called, it "didn't get a live person," Graesser said.
Neither the county nor the corps made a record of the calls.
"No sense of urgency was communicated at any level and thus no immediate action was thought necessary," the report said.
Graesser said the corps is working with counties and municipalities to devise a "common language" that will enable everyone to have a shared understanding of flood conditions and what might be needed to control them.
A geological survey of the rivers' depths will allow the corps to more accurately assess the volume of water that can be released from Mud Mountain, but Graesser said what also became clear is that the river channel can change even during a flood.
Previously, it was thought that the White River's depths changed slowly over a period of years, she said.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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