March 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Normally Dry Creek Surges Through Town Ten Families Evacuated As Flood Covers Downtown Sprague

Virginia De Leon Staff writer

Streets here have turned into rivers.

Stores are closed and the city park is under water. About 10 families have been forced to evacuate their homes.

“You can’t panic,” said Ed Willis, a Sprague resident whose antique shop was in danger of being flooded Saturday afternoon.

“You have to get slap-happy like you’re almost drunk. If you don’t, you get so sickeningly depressed that you cry.”

Negro Creek, which is normally dry, residents say, spilled over its banks last week and is now drowning parts of the town.

With the water expected to get higher, town residents attempted to save their homes and businesses Saturday by continuing to pile sandbags along the creek, which runs through downtown.

The creek was expected to crest around midnight.

“We’re holding on,” Bernie Balfe said, taking a five-minute break from shoveling sand. “If we didn’t have the high school students (helping), the town would be completely under water.”

Elsewhere in the region, floodwaters were receding.

In North Idaho, minor urban flooding was reported Saturday in some areas, although small rivers and streams continued to pose a flood threat.

The drying trend was mostly good news, but Linda Gillette of Pack River wasn’t comforted.

She frantically searched for sandbags Saturday as water rose around her Bonner County home. Five feet of snow still covered the saturated ground, Gillette said.

As the snow melted, water inched up around the wheels of parked cars and seeped into outbuildings.

A flooded septic system forced the family to haul out a portable camping toilet five days ago.

“We can hear the water gushing off the hills,” Gillette said. “The water is over the road, it’s in the shops … we’re just trying to pump out the water.”

The region’s weather forecast suggests flooding will continue to subside today. A cooling trend for the weekend has dropped snow levels to 4,000 feet, slowing the melt of a record snowpack.

The National Weather Service on Saturday afternoon continued a flood warning for the Little Spokane River in Spokane County. But the river is expected to continue falling from its Friday peak.

In Sprague, about 50 students skipped class Friday to help sandbag the creek’s banks. Many worked until dawn. On Saturday, volunteers from as far as Cheney and Spokane also came to help.

Everyone pitched in - from volunteer firemen who shoveled sand to 6-year-olds who turned the burlap bags inside out. They filled and carried the 75- to 100-pound sandbags into trucks before driving them to various spots along the creeks.

Some used wheelbarrows to haul the bags. Hugh Hoffman, who lives along the creek, floated a boat filled with sandbags to build a 20-yard wall against the water.

“These people are die-hards,” said Robyn Anderson, an American Red Cross volunteer. “They’ll stick around and work together to save their town.”

Negro Creek, which flows from Fishtrap Lake, is usually “bone-dry,” residents say. But the winter snow and the sudden thaw turned it into an overwhelming torrent, burying parts of town in mud and causing a panic among Sprague residents.

Floods like this are rare in this town, located just 40 miles southwest of Spokane.

The last major flooding happened in the late ‘60s, recalled Balfe, who has lived in Sprague since 1945. Back then, he and his friends would actually take a raft through downtown and go fishing, he said.

Few of the town’s 400 residents have slept well since Friday. Many worked nearly 20 straight hours shoveling sand and stacking bags along the creek’s banks. Others moved their belongings to higher ground.

“It was coming so fast we panicked,” said Dorothy Willis, a Sprague resident for nine years.

Saturday would have been the grand opening of her store, Willis Antiques - a small book and collectibles shop on Main Street. But the Willises couldn’t even make it to the front door as swift-moving waters continued to sweep down the corner of Main and D Streets.

Late Friday afternoon, as water began to seep into the store building, the Willises stacked their wares on tables, chairs, shelves - anything that was at least a foot off the ground.

They also had to move at least 500 pounds of food from the food bank, located behind their store. They managed to store the canned goods at a local restaurant, but the fate of their antiques and business remains out of their hands, she said.

“You have to keep joking about it,” said Dorothy Willis, who doesn’t have flood insurance. “But I’m numb right now.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color) Map of area

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