Where Kevin Meyers could once look out at the sewage treatment plant, the city park and the neat, clapboard homes of downtown, he now saw a fast-moving river that measured 400 yards across.
Water reached the roof of the park barbecue shed.
The sewage plant, built this summer in a spot believed to be above the 100-year flood line, was awash in the overflowing waters of the Palouse River’s North Fork.
“We used to joke - ‘The Mighty Palouse,”’ Meyers said as he watched from a nearby hill. “It’s usually a trickle.”
The river that shares this town’s name roared with its greatest ferocity in anyone’s memory Friday. Breaking from its steep, pine-covered banks, it surged through the entire downtown area, knocking out about 20 businesses, closing all but the road from Colfax and forcing dozens of families from their homes.
Overnight, this farm and university commuter town of 1,000 people became a national focal point of the Pacific Northwest’s watery woes.
Gretta Fiske, 16, saw the store next to her home on CNN and her own flooded living room on the evening news.
“First you think this is cool,” she said in the high school cafeteria, where Red Cross workers were busy feeding hundreds of volunteers and evacuees. “You see people taking pictures, people driving boats around. Then you see your house and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’
“Everything’s got water in it,” said Police Chief Phineas Haglin as the river continued to rise Friday morning. “There is not a business other than Bagott Motors downtown that doesn’t have water in it.”
Later, even Bagott Motors was flooded, forcing Haglin to abandon it as a command post and flee in the bucket of a front-end loader.
Some 40 homes had to be evacuated, including several in the early morning hours Friday. Four firefighters and Morgan Grant, a state Fish and Wildlife worker, carried a dozen or so people to safety through the street’s icy waters.
Paul Beyer thought some clothes stuffed beneath the doorway to his apartment would be enough protection from the water seeping across the floor of the adjacent Oasis Restaurant on Thursday night. At 3 a.m., he awoke to discover his mattress was wet. As he swung his feet to the floor, the water rose to his knees.
Cleaning up the apartment and restaurant, which he has owned for 44 years, will probably take two weeks, he said. Even then, he’s unsure what can be salvaged.
“I have a lot of antiques, a lot of paper, a lot of pictures, old pictures,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.
Hundreds of residents rallied to save parts of the town from severe damage, with their efforts often taking on the drama of a field battle. Food had to be carted out of the Gar-Pal Market early Thursday night after rising water knocked out the coolers. Volunteers worked to sandbag around the sewage treatment plant until 11 p.m. Thursday, then gave up and regrouped at the east end of town to protect the pump house - and the city water supply.
At 1 a.m. Friday, they got permission to tap the county’s gravel supply two miles out of town and started building a 6-foot-tall dike around the aging brick building. Throughout the morning the site was alive with commotion - nine trucks hauling gravel, 100 volunteers shoveling into sandbags, a dozen gas-powered pumps churning out water with the industry of the “Little Engine That Could.”
Karen Blair served lunch to fellow volunteers from the local high schools, from the Washington towns of Colton and Garfield and from the Idaho towns of Princeton and Harvard.
“It didn’t matter where they came from,” she said. “They saw a need and they were here.”
At mid-morning, the river was rising about an inch every 15 minutes and the sandbag supply ran out. But shortly before noon, more sandbags arrived, brought from Spokane on a truck lent by the McGregor Co. Word arrived from about 15 miles upstream that the river was beginning to drop.It did.
By mid-afternoon, the workers were down to a skeleton crew around the pump house and ROTC cadets from Washington State University were posted around town to keep out all but local residents and essential personnel.
Volunteers like Jason Devaney, 23, took to resting on the sandbags and gravel piles.
“Just trying to get caught up on our exhaustion here,” he said. “We’re so tired.”
In the previous three days, he had slept 10 hours.
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