Still digging out from under snow and ice, North Idaho residents ravaged by last year’s floods already are worried about what’ll happen when it all melts.
The fear is that a warm wind and heavy rain could sweep in and swell the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe rivers so they breach their banks.
When that happened last winter, rising waters sent families packing.
Another rainstorm and massive snowmelt in February hit riverside residents with a wallop big enough to be declared a national disaster.
The deluge forced hundreds of people from their homes and businesses, stranded others with submerged roads, closed schools, inundated the airport at St. Maries and flushed its sewage lagoons.
Chris and Ilsa Burmeister lost an antique piano - a family heirloom - and nearly their entire home when the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River jumped its banks for the third time in five years.
But this winter, they’re ready for it.
With the help of a low-interest loan, an initial $10,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the young couple raised their old log home onto a 12-foot high concrete foundation.
“It feels more safe,” Ilsa Burmeister said. “Our things aren’t going to get ruined every time the water comes up.”
Dozens of other flood victims are either jacking up their homes, or hoping the government will buy them out, with the last of the disaster money being sent to North Idaho.
Those still left in the lowlands are relying on luck and local government agencies to fix levies and overloaded streambeds before the next big flood.
Readiness is a mixed bag. While many smaller bank stabilization jobs and road repairs have been done, the dirt has yet to be turned on some of the more pricey projects.
The money’s in hand for dike work in Cataldo. The most recent hang-up was getting easements from landowners.
“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Cataldo resident Verne Blalack. “We’ve been trying to get the government to do all this and then it’s hung up by us. It’s like Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.”’
Among the jobs on hold are major dike repairs in St. Maries, some road repairs, floodgates for Cataldo and St. Maries, and individual buyouts and foundation work.
Most delays are due to holdups in federal money. Cataldo residents a week ago got part of the $1.2 million needed to repair two leaks and raise an upstream section of their dike. That project and a $2.6 million dike repair project in St. Maries are being covered by $6.5 million in money to North Idaho from the Economic Development Administration and HUD.
FEMA has $2.6 million in “hazard mitigation” money to cover other flood avoidance measures, such as moving people out of the flood plain. Shoshone County is expecting almost $800,000 to raise homes or buy them.
“We’re working against time with the weather,” said Shoshone County Commissioner Sherry Krulitz. “And hazard mitigation funds, we still don’t have the check in hand, but you can’t move people out in this kind of weather.”
Ed Nelson of Enaville plans to move to Osburn right away - before any chance of a new flood hitting. He’s not sticking around for FEMA to buy his home that’s been flooded six times in two years.
“I’m not getting any younger. I don’t want to do it again,” he said. “We’re going to put this thing to bed here, once and for all.”
Upstream along the river, Gayle Bourne also is ready to leave. He’s lived alongside the river for 10 years and is disturbed by the flooding trend.
Eventually, Bourne is convinced, the river will fill with gravel and turn into an intermittent stream.
Logging, road building, home construction and other changes in the landscape are the suspected causes of the bed-loading problem.
Kootenai and Shoshone counties, the Bureau of Land Management and the Natural Resource Conservation Service all worked on removing gravel in Latour and Pine creeks last summer and this fall.
The BLM has removed 10,000 to 15,000 tons of mine tailings from the Pine Creek area. So much of the creek bank was lost last winter that the metal-laden mine tailings were at risk of washing away in normal high water - not just during floods.
Although that job isn’t finished, winter weather forced workers to stop until spring.
Up Latour Creek, the conservation service is working with the county to build a gravel catch basin, which will require periodic cleanings.
“It’s difficult to deal with, it’s such a huge volume of material,” said Dave Brown of the conservation service.
Krulitz said the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene needs similar treatment, but “I don’t know that in my lifetime we’ll ever see a permit to dredge the river.”
Reluctance to disturb the river bottom leaves few options. Instead of building a river-long dike, government agencies advise people to move away or boost their homes on stilts, rocky mounds or tall foundations.
Richard and Jackie Brown of St. Maries decided not to count on FEMA, which will not pay to raise flood-damaged mobile homes.
“Our trailer sat 3 feet off the ground and we had 5 feet of water inside,” said Jackie Brown, whose property abuts a leaky levy on the St. Joe River.
The Browns applied for a low-interest loan and hauled in 6,600 cubic yards of fill to raise their property 10 feet and plug the leak. The cost of the fill work was $23,000.
Their old home in ruins, they also got a loan for a new mobile home. They were displaced for five months. Retired, in debt for life, and bitter that FEMA won’t pay for the fill material, the Browns figured they’re better off that way than at risk of losing their home again.
They’re not the only ones frustrated with the government. While emergency repair money came quickly after February’s disaster, flood prevention money is bogged down in the approval process.
“We’ve all been very frustrated by the extreme slowness in the response of the people with the checkbook,” said Bill Schwartz, director of Kootenai County Disaster Services. He referred to the recent snowfall, saying, “Those are conditions we wanted to avoid.”
Benewah County has an additional problem - it’s been on probation with FEMA for allowing people to build basements in the flood plain and place mobile homes there.
“A lot of these hazard mitigation grants are being held up until we get off probation,” said George Currier, county civil defense director. The grants he’s applied for would raise 24 homes in the flood plain and put a floodgate where Cherry Creek enters the St. Joe River.
“It’s really a two-year process,” he said. However, Currier said he’s hopeful the EDA money will come in time to do the dike repairs.
Now is a good time to make the repairs because of the low water.
But if the water rises before the job’s done, Currier fears they’ll be in worse shape than they were this time last year when the St. Joe River rose 5 feet above flood stage.
“I fear we couldn’t take that much water,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Rules revised to control emergency waivers for altering streams In the rush to protect their homes and property from floodwaters last February, 110 people in North Idaho received emergency waivers from the state to alter streams on their property. After the flood, some of the landowners were criticized for overzealous work, even “recreational bulldozing,” that damaged streams. In the wake of the criticism, the Department of Water Resources held meetings and developed new guidelines for the permit waivers. Here are some of the guidelines: Work done under a waiver can be performed only during an emergency flood. Bank reinforcement should be done with large, angular dense rock. Stream debris should be pulled from outside the stream channel, not pushed out from inside the channel. The use of equipment in stream channels or flowing water should be avoided. Materials removed from the stream must be disposed in upland locations where it will not re-enter the stream. Live trees and shrubs should not be removed. Contact the department at 769-1450 for more information. Susan Drumheller