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Flooding emergency declared as Spokane River reaches near-record highs

UPDATED: Tue., March 21, 2017, 11:11 p.m.

As the Spokane River continues to rise to its eventual cresting late Tuesday or early Wednesday morning, residents in flood-prone areas are preparing for the worst.

Spokane Mayor David Condon declared a flooding emergency Tuesday and said the Spokane River is closed to all users within city limits. All pedestrian bridges inside Riverfront Park are closed.

“The rising river levels are posing a real threat to public safety,” Condon said.

Spokane Valley city officials Tuesday also prohibited use of the river in city limits.

The city of Spokane has been handing out sandbags and sand in low-lying areas in Peaceful Valley and along Upriver Drive. The river is expected to remain above flood stage for nearly a week, Condon said.

Upriver Drive is closed from Mission Avenue to Green Street, South Riverton is closed under the Greene Street Bridge and Water Avenue at Ash Street is also closed. Some drivers drove through flooded areas on Monday and their cars had to be towed when they became disabled.

In Spokane County, Columbia Basin Highway is closed from Pine Springs Road to the Lincoln County line.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl urged residents to respect “road closed” signs. “Stay out of those areas, please,” Meidl said.

Meidl said his officers will work with the Spokane Fire Department to evacuate residents if necessary.

Along East Upriver Drive, which is under several feet of water in some areas, residents of the Edgewater Village Condominiums used sand and bags dropped off by the city to shore up driveways and edges of the street where the river was threatening to pour over.

Natalie Boone, who lives on the third floor with her husband and two young children, watched from her window as neighbors stacked sandbags, paying particular attention to units with basements a few feet under where water levels are now.

“I’ve seen it flood before, but not like this,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

She said her husband, who lived in the same building during severe flooding in 2008, saw the water that year reach up past a large garbage bin in the middle of the parking lot, so she admits it could be worse. Still, she worries for her neighbors, especially those having trouble making it out of their parking lot.

“I’m just glad there’s still a way out,” she said, referring to the detour along North Crescent Avenue.

Just a few hundred yards away at Avista’s headquarters, representatives from the utility, the National Weather Service and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office spoke to reporters about the flooding situation in the Inland Northwest, especially the Spokane River.

Katherine Rowden, a hydrologist at the weather service, explained why the river has surged so high and said the level could reach the fourth highest peak since recording began. The last time it crested as high as forecasted was in 2008; before that, it was in 1948.

Rowden said a culmination of factors – heavy rain followed by heavy snow, and then heavy rain again along with warm temperatures – contributed to Lake Coeur d’Alene filling past capacity. And because the ground already is saturated, the water flowing down the Spokane River has nowhere else to go.

“There’s pretty much never been a situation we’re in now with saturated soil,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of water and the soil can’t take much more.”

Despite forecasted rains this week, Rowden said the river is still expected to slowly fall.

“We do have more rain coming,” she said. “But it’s not on the level of the rain we’ve been having.”

Deputy Mark Gregory, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, was there to “remind everyone to please stay out of the river.”

“The extreme danger this causes is just something that will get people hurt,” Gregory said.

On Monday, emergency crews pulled a body out of the Spokane River near Canada Island. The person, who has not been identified, apparently went off the footbridge by Canada Island about 4:20 p.m., according to police spokesman Officer Joshua Laiva.

Fire Department interim Chief Brian Schaeffer said going into the surging river is dangerous for everyone, including his crews.

“We risked our lives to recover that body in a precarious position,” Schaeffer said. “I don’t know, in this river condition, if we’ll do that again.”

On Wednesday, a canoe full of five people tipped over in the area of Peaceful Valley where Hangman Creek meets the Spokane River, sending all passengers overboard. All made it ashore safely, but incidents like these give Gregory and other law enforcement agencies pause.

“It is a fight, if you fall in the river, for your life,” Gregory said. “And it’s a fight you’re probably going to lose.”

Avista said all spill gates are wide open at the Post Falls Dam.

The flooding is not limited to Eastern Washington. High water levels in the Coeur d’Alene River, the St. Joe River and Lake Coeur d’Alene prompted Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to declare a disaster for Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Clearwater, Kootenai, Latah and Shoshone counties.

The affected counties have reported flooding, water over roadways and mudslides that have damaged homes and shut down roads.