Randle RV Park Among the Hardest Hit in Last Week’s Flooding on the Cowlitz River

RESCUE: Sheriff’s Office Rescued Eight Campground Residents During Flooding Friday

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It came around 3 a.m.

Just an hour earlier, Stephen Hartwell, 66, had been standing on dry land on his way to use a nearby RV park restroom. Now, awakened in the middle of the night by his friend, Hartwell and his 10-year-old cat Elli were facing encroaching floodwaters from the Cowlitz River.

The waves were tapping against the floor of his old mini Winnebago.

“It came in here really quick,” Hartwell recalled.

The waves inundated his vehicle with water roughly 3 ½ feet high, Hartwell said. River silt soaked the upholstery of his vehicle, which was parked in a long term lot at Cascade Peaks Campground.

About 12 hours later, as the Cowlitz River crested into the campground, Hartwell was one of about eight residents rescued and evacuated by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office Swift Water Rescue Team, Lewis County Fire District 14 and campground staff.

“It surprised the hell out of me. I mean, I couldn’t even believe it could come up that quick. It must have just crashed over the barrier and just built up quick,” Hartwell said on Saturday morning, still assessing the damage.

Residents of Cascade Peaks Campground, located 10 minutes east of Randle, were hit the hardest late last week after an atmospheric river soaked Western Washington with multiple inches of rain on Thursday and Friday.

The Cowlitz River entered into major flood stage late Friday evening, cresting at about 22.27 feet. The Newaukum River at Chehalis also saw some moderate flooding, cresting at 204.62, and the Chehalis River at Grand Mound reached minor flooding at 141.41 feet.

Melted snow packs from warm rain likely played a big role during this most recent event. The White Pass area saw roughly 4.76 inches of rain between Thursday and Friday.

Flows along most Lewis County area rivers are expected to drop back to normal later this week, though the North Puget Sound was expected to be inundated with another atmospheric river event early this week, paving the way for near-historic flooding.

“It was fairly uneventful compared to our previous floods. I’m not aware of a whole lot of property damage, though we have to go to a couple other places today,” Lewis County Fire District 14 Chief Jeff Jaques said Monday morning.

Fire District 14 and the sheriff’s office also rescued three people at River Run Ranch Estates. Waters during Cowlitz  floods in 1995, 1996, 2005, 2006 and 2016 all crested higher than the most recent event.

At a meeting on Monday, the Lewis County Board of Commissioners confirmed no deaths were reported due to flooding in East Lewis County.

Though the damage is minimal, residents along the Cowlitz River and at Cascade Peaks remain shaken by the most recent flood event.

Hartwell moved out to the area about six months ago after an RV park in Orting he was living at closed.

The Randle area — remote, with no cell service or radio — seemed like his own little slice of heaven. Plus, with rent prices starting at only $425 per lot, it was a good deal.

But he said he didn’t know much about flood issues when he moved.

He said he also wasn’t warned by staff or neighbors that the area was under a serious threat of flooding. He said he was surprised by the lack of discussion.

“Nobody came back here and told us that it was going to do that. I mean, I had no idea. I might have made preparations to move my car,” he said, adding later: “We should have been notified. They should have came back here and told us that that was going to happen. We have no way of getting any broadcast of any kind. This spot is dead.”

He said on Saturday that he’s not sure where he’s going to live next — much less if he’ll be able to live in his Winnebago.

But not everyone flooded in the campground. Where Hartwell lived, along the western slope of the campground, is considered the lowest part of the campground. The further east, the higher the ground, staff said.

David Richter, 59, lives in a fifth wheel on one of the most western lots.

He’s retired and has lived in Cascade Peaks for about four years with his wife and their three dogs, Lucy, Bubbles and Bear.

He said this is the worst flood he’s seen hit the campground during his stay. His wife was one of the people who were boated out on Friday, so he was still working to assess the damage when speaking with The Chronicle on Saturday.

The river flooded an outdoor shed the couple used as a combination mancave-laundry room-crafts room. They’d just recently installed the fixture, having invested about $14,000 into it. Star Trek VHS tapes sat dry on a high shelf.

Twice a day, Richter and his wife would take their purple, electric golf cart over to a nearby park and observe the wildlife. That cart, he fears, may have been totaled.

“It’s just an ugly mess. It’s expensive. It’s just not any fun,” he said.

Fields and some county roadways remained covered with water on Saturday. The state Route 131 bridge, which connects Randle to the southern reaches of the valley, was still cut off Saturday afternoon. Portions of U.S. Highway 12 opened early Saturday, though.

William Calkin, 59, who lives at the tail end of McKay Street downtown, had to wade through more than a foot of water in his rain boots just to walk down his road. The flood event was “a little concerning,” he said, though nothing comparable to the 2005 flood.

“One year, I lost five cords of wood. That was my winter supply,” he said, noting that his shed was flooded this year and he lost a pressure washer and lawnmower.

Howard Justice, 85, a lifelong Randle resident, said they’ve experienced much worse floods in the past, though this most recent flood was concerning.

But if you live along the Cowlitz in Randle, flooding is just a way of life.

“I don’t worry about it. I turn the (water) pump on, go to bed and go to sleep,” he said, adding later: “I just pray it don’t get too deep.”