February 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Waters Rage Across Northwest Many Hands Join The Fight Against Mean, Muddy River After Standoff With Fire Officials, Colfax Residents Strengthen Dike With Sandbags

Dan Hansen Eric Sorensen Contributed Staff writer
 

Deputy Fire Chief John Bibler had a budding rebellion on his hands.

The Palouse River was running higher, muddier and meaner on Thursday than most people in town had ever seen.

Water flooded the golf course and a few basements. The biggest waves lapped over the concrete flood walls downtown.

About 10 a.m., someone noticed water seeping under the earthen dike that separates the river from the North Flats neighborhood.

Firefighters knocked on the doors of about 200 houses, telling residents of this small wheat-belt town there was no emergency but they should be ready to leave, just in case.

By 1 p.m., residents gathered with shovels in their gloved hands. They wore slickers and boots and demanded that Bibler order truckloads of sand so they could shore up the barrier.

Firetrucks blocked their path. Bibler was betting the dike would hold, since the water was only trickling through the leaks. But if it did wash out, he didn’t want people swept away.

“Nobody’s going out on that dike,” he said calmly.

The neighbors fumed in the rain as the muddy Palouse continued to rise.

“He wants to stand here and see if it’s going to break through,” said Harold Herman, 72, his tan cotton hat drooping in the steady rain. “Well, if it does break through, we’re done.”

By 1:30 p.m., Bibler had talked to engineers and decided to let the residents have their way.

“At least it gets them out of our face,” a firefighter grumbled.

About 60 residents started filling sandbags. By dusk, perhaps 300 people from the community of 3,000 were toiling at the river’s edge.

“We might be wasting our time, but we ain’t hurting anything,” said Eric Jones, 26. His Australian outback jacket was caked with mud.

Hard, steady work relieved the tension. Neighbors laughed and told stories of other times the river rose - though rarely as high as this.

Seven-year-old Shana Largent and her cousin, Stephanie Eng, 8, held open the plastic bags while Stephanie’s father, Terry Eng, shoveled in sand. The bulging bags passed down a diverse line - from old men to young women to high-school jocks.

“Heavy one,” they called as an over-stuffed sandbag was passed down the line. “Light one,” and chests relaxed for a 20-pounder.

Like the river, rumors rushed through town. The most persistent had an ice dam breaking near the city of Palouse or Potlatch. Within a half hour, a wall of water would carry car-sized ice chunks into town, or so the rumor went.

One half-hour eclipsed another, and still the rumors persisted. The water rose slowly.

The volunteer army fortified the seepage points, then built a wall atop the dike, two feet high and more than 100 yards long.

With the dike secure, they moved a mile downstream, and built another wall where the Palouse was spilling over the bank.

Water rushed less than a foot beneath the bridge where U.S. Highway 195 crosses the river. Chunks of ice and other debris pounded as they went under, sending shudders through the bridge.

By 7:30 p.m., the torrent had washed away part of the riverbank nearby. State officials closed the bridge for about two hours, until workers could shore up the bank.

Late Thursday night, firefighters again knocked on doors in the North Flats neighborhood, this time asking residents to voluntarily evacuate to the Catholic church.

The river wasn’t expected to crest until this morning. While Fire Chief Jim Krouse was optimistic the dike would hold, he played it safe.

Those who stayed in their homes were told to listen for a siren. If it sounded, they should get out - quick.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A HISTORY OF FLOODS Flooding is a frequent threat to the Inland Northwest. While fewer floods have occurred in recent years, a look back over the past half century shows repeated flooding in the winter and spring. Some of the biggest floods: 1948 - A snowy winter, wet spring and hot May combined for one of the region’s great floods. Bonners Ferry, Idaho, inundated, wartime town of Vanport near Portland destroyed, more than three dozen people dead or missing, damage to crops estimated at $30 million. 1950 - Winter floods caused trouble in the Palouse, followed by spring floods on the Pend Oreille River in North Idaho and northeastern Washington. 1956 - March flood swamped Sprague, Wash., with water, and a May flood on the Kootenai River covered half the farmland near Bonners Ferry. Homes evacuated. 1963 - Melting snow caused widespread urban flooding in Spokane in February. Palouse towns hit with high water. Ice chunks caused damage along North Idaho rivers. Flooding widespread in region. 1964 - Heavy inland snows followed by a thaw before Christmas triggered one of the region’s big floods. Highways and rail lines cut off. Willamette and Columbia rivers overflow. Damage extensive in Inland Northwest. 1969 - A quick January thaw hit the Walla Walla area and Lapwai valley near Lewiston. 1974 - Wind-driven January rains raised rivers throughout Inland Northwest. Highways blocked by slides and washouts. Towns flooded; schools closed. Idaho suffers $51 million in damage. 1982 - A February warm-up swelled the Spokane River over its banks, along with rivers that feed Lake Coeur d’Alene. Mike Prager

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Dan Hansen Staff writer Staff writer Eric Sorensen contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: A HISTORY OF FLOODS Flooding is a frequent threat to the Inland Northwest. While fewer floods have occurred in recent years, a look back over the past half century shows repeated flooding in the winter and spring. Some of the biggest floods: 1948 - A snowy winter, wet spring and hot May combined for one of the region’s great floods. Bonners Ferry, Idaho, inundated, wartime town of Vanport near Portland destroyed, more than three dozen people dead or missing, damage to crops estimated at $30 million. 1950 - Winter floods caused trouble in the Palouse, followed by spring floods on the Pend Oreille River in North Idaho and northeastern Washington. 1956 - March flood swamped Sprague, Wash., with water, and a May flood on the Kootenai River covered half the farmland near Bonners Ferry. Homes evacuated. 1963 - Melting snow caused widespread urban flooding in Spokane in February. Palouse towns hit with high water. Ice chunks caused damage along North Idaho rivers. Flooding widespread in region. 1964 - Heavy inland snows followed by a thaw before Christmas triggered one of the region’s big floods. Highways and rail lines cut off. Willamette and Columbia rivers overflow. Damage extensive in Inland Northwest. 1969 - A quick January thaw hit the Walla Walla area and Lapwai valley near Lewiston. 1974 - Wind-driven January rains raised rivers throughout Inland Northwest. Highways blocked by slides and washouts. Towns flooded; schools closed. Idaho suffers $51 million in damage. 1982 - A February warm-up swelled the Spokane River over its banks, along with rivers that feed Lake Coeur d’Alene. Mike Prager

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Dan Hansen Staff writer Staff writer Eric Sorensen contributed to this report.


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