April 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Region Struggles To Shake Off Floods Small Washington Town Still Choked With Mud, Heavy Equipment

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Weeks after the Touchet River missed the turn and nearly washed a chunk of this tiny town off the map, the place still looks like a mud pie.

Now, the town flower is a sandbag. It sprouts everywhere - in clumps near a telephone pole, next to the garage, stacked three-high along a section of river.

The town animal is a bulldozer, crawling over gravel and mud and rummaging through back yards. The town song is the hum of dump trucks.

“Usually the streets are much cleaner,” said Mayor Tom Baker, stepping over a banana peel on dust-covered Main Street. “But this has been the rock and mud capital of the western United States for the last month and a half.”

Waitsburg usually is a tidy town of about 1,000 people. It’s cornered in the flood plain between the Touchet River and Coppei Creek, just inside Walla Walla County, about 130 miles south of Spokane. It has loads of history as one of the oldest towns in Washington and the only one still following a territorial charter.

Since the floods of early February, Waitsburg also has loads of mud and damaged buildings. It was one of the hardest hit towns in Washington, with up to 4-1/2 feet of water running through some streets.

It is now a playground for heavy machinery and a graveyard for trees and plants. Residents of a town that fears change like dental work are coping with trucks rumbling down their streets. A thick layer of gooey mud and dust coats clothes and lines teeth with grit.

The one city park looks like a cracked eggshell, thick with mud. A marble bench seat, dedicated to a former mayor’s daughter, is level with the ground. The barbecues are grilling dirt. The merry-go-round can’t spin, and workers are trying to dig the muck from the tire tunnels.

Even after crews cleared streets for three days, about 35,000 cubic yards of mud remained. That’s more than 5,800 truckloads.

“Mother Nature can do this in two days,” Baker said. “It’s gonna take two years before we’re back to normal.”

Baker is a coat hanger of a man, draped in a blue work shirt and Levi jeans supported by a pair of black suspenders. He’s the kind of mayor who invites strangers into his home for tuna fish sandwiches and calls the UPS delivery man “chief.”

The sheet music on the piano in Baker’s home is for “Mississippi Mud.” Two pairs of his mud-covered boots are outside his door, next to a shovel.

“If you take a very long-term philosophical view of this, this is the kind of thing that created these fields in the first place,” said Baker, sweeping his hand over a strawberry field coated in gravel.

Lord knows, the town has survived tragedy before. The great fire of 1881, reportedly started by an opium-smoking man, wiped out downtown. The great flood of April 1931. The great flood of Christmas 1964.

But there’s really been nothing like this, at least for these residents.

“We’ve spent two solid months digging out,” said Patti McGraw, raising her voice over the sound of the bulldozer across the street. “It’s gonna be a lot more digging. Every morning, we get up and my husband says, ‘Well, what should we do today?’ I say, ‘Let’s just go back to bed.”’

One set of neighbors moved to Arizona, and their house will probably be destroyed. A man across the street died after the flood.

The mud and the water buried McGraw’s dreams. For three years, she planted and cared for day lilies in her yard, right next to the Touchet River. McGraw planned to open a flower shop next spring. “That whole thing over there was in lilies,” said McGraw, pointing to a side of her yard. “Now, it’s all in mud.”

It’s all a mess. A clothes pole is missing. The handmade white picket fence is broken into sections. Fruit trees are on their sides, with hay, weeds and mud glopped onto branches. An old rusted truck body washed into the yard.

McGraw and her husband, Frank, lost all the furniture on the first floor of their bright blue home to 3 feet of tenacious mud that still pops up in corner drawers.

Patti McGraw sounded the first flood alert for neighbors. The flood packed a one-two punch, with the first swing coming Wednesday, Feb. 7.

She spotted the water creeping into her back yard about 5:15 a.m. She called the mayor and the marshal. She ran to neighbors next door and across U.S. Highway 12. She tried to convince a wheelchair-bound man in his 80s to leave his trailer home. He had to be carried out.

Volunteers filled almost 33,000 sandbags - more than 30 for every resident. They shored up the levee. The water fought back, but it started to level off the next day.

The second punch came two days later when a cloudburst sent more water down river. Part of a levee washed away. Dayton’s sewage flowed eight miles down the river to Waitsburg, along with a camper that’s still propped against a tree, just outside of town.

The Touchet River knocked over a sturdy cement AT&T; fiber-optic station. The water scooped up piles of old railroad ties, which became battering rams that tumbled into homes by the river. The water warped the floor of the back room of the newspaper building into a roller coaster shape.

“What a mess,” said Jane Smith, who owns The Waitsburg Times with her husband.

The Coppei Creek, a trickle in summertime, spilled over its banks and knocked down a railroad trestle that measures more than 20 feet wide and high. The creek loped down a section of Highway 12 to join the Touchet near the city park.

The water spouted a foot high out of toilets and manholes. Residents were told not to use their toilets: There were port-a-potties on every corner.

Residents were told not to drink the water from their million-gallon water tank. Instead, 30 men poured about 50 gallons of bleach into the tank to kill bacteria. Nobody got sick, Baker said.

The river spared most historic buildings in the town, founded in 1865. But it punched a hole in the rear of the wooden Grange building, built by members in 1940 and used for community meetings. The Waitsburg Grange was the first founded in Washington, back when the state was a territory.

When the water broke through the building, five members were inside, trying to pump out water bubbling through the floor.

“We heard a crash, and we turned around and the water was pouring in the windows,” said Rick Ferguson, treasurer of the Grange. “We got out.”

It took a bite out of the back wall and left about 8 feet of mud in the basement. Now, Grange members are waiting on any available federal money. About 230 people in town have also applied for government assistance.

Despite the flood’s bite, there’s still a sense of humor in town. Everyone laughed when Baker got stuck in the mud. Workers sarcastically say they’ll point if they see mud. Someone tied a glow-in-the dark bat in the high branches of a felled tree.

There’s a sense of capitalism. The T-shirt shop next to the newspaper building is selling flood shirts, including a mud-splattered shirt proclaiming “Come mud or high water, I survived.” The sign at the Jackpot Exxon advertises specials: “Espresso. 2% milk, $2.09 a gallon. Flood videos.”

There’s also some hope, small dreams for the future. “I’m hoping we don’t have a wet April,” Patti McGraw said. “That’s the last thing we need.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)

Map of area.


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