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Flooding Sequel A Major Hit Towns Still Recovering Belted Again

Thu., April 25, 1996, midnight

John Witherspoon had an unwelcome visitor at 4 a.m. Wednesday when Pine Creek came knocking at his door.

When he went outside, he was “about knee deep in water,” Witherspoon said Wednesday afternoon from his muddy front yard, now protected by a line of sandbags.

“Your adrenaline goes pretty good and makes you throw sandbags even faster,” he said.

Witherspoon was one of hundreds of North Idaho residents whose lives were disrupted as heavy rains swelled rivers to flood stage, threatening to wash them from their homes and businesses for the second time this year.

The North Fork of Pine Creek washed over a bridge near Witherspoon’s house.

School buses didn’t travel the canyon, leaving some students to spend the day watching logs and debris get sucked under the submerged bridge as Shoshone County workers stabilized the banks.

Gov. Phil Batt quickly declared a state of emergency in six Idaho counties: Kootenai, Shoshone, Benewah, Latah, Nez Perce and Clearwater.

The proclamation frees up state crews to help fight flooding.

“We want to ensure that people that have already suffered don’t have to suffer for a long time again,” said Darren Blagburn, spokesman for the state Bureau of Disaster Services.

Muddy and mad, river currents rose up to wash out roads and banks already weakened from February’s record floods.

Four families were stranded up Latour Creek when the water washed out a section of road recently fixed by highway district crews.

In Benewah County, workers used sandbags and clay to bolster the leaking state Highway 3 dike at St. Maries, Babic said. The St. Joe River was expected to crest overnight at 3 feet over flood stage.

Further east on the St. Joe, the road to Calder was covered by water, forcing locals to ferry their children to school over an old railroad grade.

“We can’t get out of here unless we go 24 miles out of our way,” said Daina Oliver, clerk at the Calder General Store. “We’re just sitting tight.”

At Rose Lake, workers diverted Fourth of July Creek away from the Rose Lake General Store.

A steady stream of Cataldo residents visited the frontage road bridge west of town Wednesday where markers on the bridge supports measure the height of the river.

In the early afternoon, the river hit the 45-foot mark, 2 feet above flood stage.

The bridge has been closed since the February flood undercut the bank on the west end. The last flood also raised the river there above the 50-foot level, and created whirlpools that worsened a leak in the dike.

County workers set up two pumps by the leaky dike in the early afternoon and pumped water back into the river.

“This is highly unusual,” said Walt Reed, whose Cataldo home was destroyed in February when his home was filled with 4-1/2 feet of water. Since then, Reed and his wife moved to Osburn.

“There are too many worries” living in Cataldo, he said.

At the Cataldo Inn, a group of men waited for word to erect a concrete dike under the Interstate 90 overpass.

“I don’t think anybody’s really worried about it yet,” said Don Huber, as he dug into a German sausage slathered in saurkraut.

“We’re going to keep the water out of town this time,” said his brother, Gary Huber.

Bill Schwartz, director of Kootenai County Disaster Services, entered the restaurant and announced that the latest word from the National Weather Service was that the river would crest at 46.5 feet at 11 p.m.

“You want to hear the good news,” he deadpanned. “Heavy rains tomorrow.”

The Coeur d’Alene River already was over its banks, flooding the campground on the south side of I-90.

A heavily loaded truck, its bed covered with a blue tarp, was parked in the campground up to its bumper in water.

“I tried to find the owner. He’s going to have water in his truck today,” said Verne Blalock, Cataldo’s local flood expert who kept a close eye on the rising water Wednesday.

When Blalock checked Tuesday night, the river was at 39 feet. “The water came up real fast,” he said.

Downstream, residents witnessed some cows trapped in the flood, and debated whether to shoot them to put them out of their misery.

Benewah County disaster coordinator Mike Maland predicted problems would start there today. Water was expected to crest between 34 and 36 feet overnight, but “until we get to 38 feet, we don’t exactly put things in place,” he said. “I’d say that’s critical.” Near Moscow, parts of several highways were closed during the night, although all were re-opened by Wednesday afternoon.

By midmorning, most rivers and creeks in Latah County were receding, but supersaturated soils raised the possibility of landslides throughout the week.

Potlatch residents reported some farmland flooding on the outskirts of town but no serious trouble. The Palouse River was running high but was not a danger to U.S. Highway 95.

Volunteers were putting sandbags into place and trying to shore up bends in Orofino Creek, which was swollen from all the rain, said John Case with the U.S. Forest Service.

A half-dozen local roads were closed, but the major highways into Orofino remained open, unlike the February floods, he said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Susan Drumheller Staff writer Staff writer Rich Roesler and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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