Landslide changes life in valley near Naches
Nothing is as it was just three weeks ago along this stretch of Nile Road.
Nothing is as it was just three weeks ago along this stretch of Nile Road.
Certainly not State Route 410 or the Naches River.
And not for people like Boyd Brown and Barb Milligan, whose lives have been changed forever by the Oct. 11 landslide that blocked a quarter mile of the highway.
In the place of this once-bucolic scene is a hubbub of activity: Pieces of heavy machinery growl as their operators move earth for a new river channel and to build a new road to replace a temporary, emergency gravel road that soon will be lost to rising water.
When that will happen, only the river knows.
If all goes well - a difficult prospect with winter weather fast approaching - the new channel and the completed road for the winter could see some semblance of peace return around Thanksgiving.
Peace, perhaps, but this area of the Nile - with an estimated 300-600 residents - will never be the same again.
For now, the Nile Road is part of the state highway system as a detour for State Route 410.
A permanent route for the scenic highway to Chinook Pass could be at least a year away.
Whatever the outcome, the Milligans won't be part of it.
The couple's home, across the Naches River from the slide, is gone now, having been purchased and torn down by Yakima County.
They have moved to Naches.
Bob and Barb Milligan had lived in a 1,200-square-foot house next to Nile Road for 45 years. The house, once a cabin, had also been a post office and a parsonage during its life. It's where the couple raised three children.
Where their house stood for all those years will soon be part of the new channel for the Naches River.
The couple evacuated the morning of the slide and returned almost a week later to move after coming to grips with the realization they could never go back permanently. River water that found a way around the slide was percolating up to the surface around their home.
They didn't have to do the move on their own.
Mrs. Milligan has worked at Landmark Care Center for more than 20 years. Her employers, Jeff and Randy Hyatt, owners of Hyatt Family Facilities, provided trailers. A half-dozen co-workers and members of the family pitched in and moved the couple in four hours on Oct. 16, a Friday.
The couple signed the papers selling their home that morning on the front porch.
By that afternoon, they had a storage unit for their belongings and a triplex in which to live.
"That's how God works," the 65-year-old Barb Milligan said last week .
Now, they're putting their lives back together after leaving an area they had called home for decades.
She said the atmosphere and the solidarity of its residents are what they enjoyed about living in the Nile.
"I do mourn the loss, but on the other hand, I'm thankful that no one was hurt," she said. "We have a lot of friends who rallied around us."
County officials are hopeful their plans for the river will be achieved. But the river will have to cooperate.
"I don't think we are dealing with certainty yet today. We are dealing with a river that has a mind of its own," Vern Redifer, head of Yakima County's Public Services, said last week.
A 50 percent chance exists the Naches River, because of rain and snow, could be flowing at 10 times it current rate of less than 400 cubic feet per second during November.
Rapidly rising flows reaching such high levels would take out the emergency road, an elevated gravel road built on top of the existing Nile Road, cut off the community, and complicate plans to complete the winter road.
All public access was lost for several days immediately after the slide.
County Commissioner Mike Leita said the county's plan for the new channel will take the river away from the slide and away from the threat of further erosion of the fine-grained slide material that filled the river channel.
Erosion could cause more slides and send tons of silt-laden water down the river to the water treatment plant that the city of Yakima relies on for drinking water.
"If we can keep this together for 10 days to two weeks, we can be successful and not create a separation that will isolate the upper Nile," Leita said. "We will need that time, if we have manageable weather, to make the complete transition."
The county is throwing its weight, expertise and money along with the state Department of Transportation to maintain road access for people and avoid the threats that erosion of the massive slide would pose.
Along the way, the county and the state will spend about $11 million in buying land and building the road. Including the contractor, state and county staff, more than 60 people are working in the Nile project.
The county has purchased five properties, displacing three families, for the channel and portions of the road at a total cost of $1.7 million. Staff time and other expenses could see the county's investment reach $3 million.
Redifer said the money is coming from the county's Flood Control Zone District account. County commissioners created the district, financed by a property tax of about 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, more than a decade ago to fund programs to relieve flood threats throughout the county.
Some county road department funds also are being used, money the county expects to have reimbursed by the federal government.
The effort has brought Redifer in contact with people who have lived in the Nile Valley for decades.
"Everyone that I have talked to, even though their lives have been turned upside down, their first concern is for their neighbors or friends up here. The people who have land up here are amazing people," he said.
Another of those people is Boyd Brown. Brown won't have to move, but the 71-year-old rancher also will endure major changes.
The county bought 11 acres of his property and razed a red barn near his home to make way for the new river channel. That barn had been the scene of weddings and other community events over the years.
Brown agreed the slide and subsequent purchase of his property have been disruptive. But he added he feels worse for those like the Milligans who lost their homes.
East of where the barn once stood, the county plans to create an opening for the river to flow around the slide.
The county also bought some land from Brown where the winter road is being constructed.
At the lower end of the slide, the Army Corps of Engineers, using emergency authority, oversaw digging a new channel where the river will re-enter the main channel.
When the time comes, a section of the Nile Road will be removed and the upper end of the new channel opened, allowing the river to flow in an arc around and through the property the county bought.
Sections of the channel are taking shape now. Road construction crews will use rock and soil from the channel's new route to build the subgrade for the new road.
Redifer said the opening for the river that will cross what was Brown's property will be about 230 feet wide and 8 feet deep, sufficient to carry the anticipated higher winter flows.
Several hundred yards away against the west side of the valley, crews from Selland Construction of Wenatchee are busily putting in the foundation for the new paved road officials expect will be open throughout the winter months.
A more permanent solution for that section of State Route 410 is at least a year away, if not longer.
Managing the project on the ground for the state Department of Transportation is Corie Henke, field engineer.
Henke has been on the ground every day since after the slide to work on the project.
Henke, who has been with the regional office for 17 years, worked on response efforts to the 1996 flood that submerged the Selah interchange and heavily damaged the U.S. Highway 12 bridge over the Naches River at the intersection with State Route 410.
"This is the most challenging and demanding thing I have done in 17 years. At the same time, it is the most rewarding," Henke said.
That the repair work could have begun so quickly is a result of some fortuitous timing. Selland Construction was already in the Nile Valley when the slide occurred about 6 a.m. that Sunday morning.
The firm had heavy equipment close to finishing improvements to the north 2.5 miles of Nile Road under a contract with Yakima County. The section is gravel, and the county awarded a contract to pave it as part of a program to reduce the miles of gravel road in the county.
Now, with the road becoming State Route 410, the Department of Transportation will pave the road.
The new winter road under construction will tie into the newly paved Nile Road near the bridge across Rattlesnake Creek.
Redifer said much of the workload performed by the county and the state has been done on a handshake. The details will be sorted out later.
"We have had a good relationship with DOT. We have mutual trust and respect," Redifer said. "We will work out the financial details in the coming weeks after we solve the crisis."
Don Whitehouse, DOT's regional administrator in Union Gap, said he hopes to have the road open to traffic by Thanksgiving as long as the weather cooperates. But he admits it is an optimistic schedule.
Emergency authority to build the new road - which will be reimbursed by the federal government - is likely to cost almost $8 million, Whitehouse said.
He admitted it is a tight timeline but one he anticipates he will meet.
"Building roads is what we do for a living," he said.
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakima-herald.com