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Whatcom County flood losses could reach $50 million from last week’s atmospheric river

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 23, 2021

By Robert Mittendorf Beelingham Herald

Damages from flooding in Whatcom County could reach as high as $50 million, Whatcom County officials said at an online briefing Tuesday, Nov. 23., at the Whatcom Unified Emergency Operations Center.

John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, said he wouldn’t be surprised if public and private damages and economic losses reach that mark.

Included among that $50 million, Gargett said, were estimates of $15 to $20 million in damage to houses in the area, “tens of millions of dollars” in damage to public infrastructure and another $15 to $20 million in damage to area business centers.

A Pineapple Express storm drenched Whatcom County for three days and the Nooksack River surged over its banks on Nov. 14, inundating the communities of Everson, Nooksack and Sumas — where City Hall, the post office and some 80% of homes suffered water damage.

A BNSF train derailed, the U.S.- Canada border closed in Sumas, three bridges in Bellingham were closed, and landslides blocked Interstate 5 south of Bellingham, isolating the city for more than a day.

Gargett said recovery will be a long process.

U.S. Rep Suzan DelBene, D- Kirkland, whose 1st District includes northern Whatcom County, said she grieved for Jose Garcia of Everson, who was swept away by floodwaters, and for those who lost their homes and businesses.

“I’m heartbroken for what’s happened,” DelBene said. “I am heartbroken for the family of Mr. Garcia, for the life that was lost during this disaster.”

DelBene promised to help steer federal aid toward those who suffered losses.

“It’s been incredibly difficult across the board for families, many who were just starting to recover from the last floods we had,” DeBene said.

After the meeting, she said she planned to tour the devastation in Everson and Sumas and talk with displaced residents as Gov. Jay Inslee did last week.

“I want to help communities get as much resources as possible to help both with public infrastructure as well as helping families,” she said.

Whatcom council briefing

Much of the most severe flooding was in areas that had been hard-hit by a similar atmospheric river storm in early 2020, and in several years previously, said Jon Hutchings, director of the Public Works Department.

“It’s been 30-plus years since there’s been a flood of this scale,” Hutchings told the Whatcom County Council during a committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Hutchings said 160 bridges throughout the county have been examined since Friday, Nov. 19, with no obvious structural damage found.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers crews started repairs Tuesday on Nooksack River levees in four locations, including near Lynden and on the Lummi Peninsula.

Ten county roads remain impassable, Hutchings said.

“There’s a lot of damage out there, no question, but the amount of major damage is pretty moderate considering the size of this flooding,” he said.

Another pressing issue is debris removal and disposal, Gargett told the County Council.

Some 1,200 volunteers helped clear homes and properties last weekend in Everson, Nooksack and Sumas, Gargett said.

Cleanup efforts are continuing, and those cities are struggling to pay dumping fees of $100,000 for Everson and $125,000 or more for Sumas, he said.

County Council members were considering an urgency measure at their Tuesday night meeting to pay those fees and seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Gargett told the council that 500 to 600 homes were affected in the hardest-hit communities.

“There are going to be, quite candidly, several thousand people without Thanksgiving,” he said.

And those people have emotional needs, as well as concerns over food, clothing and shelter.

“We have a large number of people who’ve reached out for counseling, Gargett said.

Meanwhile, damage assessments were continuing and would be added to losses in 13 other Western Washington counties that Gov. Jay Inslee declared as disaster areas — with the hope of getting federal aid.

All losses must be meticulously documented, but reimbursements won’t come quickly and won’t cover everything.

“It’s not going to be fast enough. It’s not going to be enough when it does come,” Gargett told the council. “None of these federal programs make people whole.”

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