The National Weather Service (NWS) has issued flood watches for Lewis County and several other counties in Washington following forecasts of heavy rain across the region for the next 24 hours.
For East Lewis County, the Cowlitz River is forecast to hit the major flooding category at Randle in the early morning hours on Tuesday. Minor flooding is also predicted for the Cowlitz at Packwood.
In preparation for major flooding, the Lewis County Department of Emergency Management (DEM) has put the county’s Swiftwater Rescue Team on standby. The team is a collaborative effort between the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies.
Elsewhere in Lewis County, the Newaukum River is forecast to crest just under the moderate flooding category near midday Tuesday. Other parts of the Chehalis River Basin, including the Chehalis River at Centralia, are predicted to enter the action stage on Tuesday.
There is also a flood watch issued for Thurston County. Minor flooding is forecast for the Skookumchuck at Bucoda and the Chehalis River near Grand Mound, both are set to crest after noon Tuesday.
“It’s a combination of both heavy rain and to some degree the snowmelt in the mountains does contribute to it,” said Dustin Guy, a meteorologist with the NWS Seattle office. “The two together really pushes the rivers up. … As long as this heavy rain continues, we will continue to see the rivers rise.”
Asked whether U.S. Highway 12 is likely to be inundated with flood water if the Cowlitz enters the major flood category, DEM Deputy Director Ross McDowell said: “That’s a good possibility, yes.”
In the case of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) closing the highway, there will be a detour set up on Silverbrook Road through Randle. The biggest concern McDowell had in the case of the highway’s closure was people in Packwood and Randle getting cut off from necessary services. Also, because northern passes through the Cascades are currently closed in Washington, White Pass may need to be closed to avoid a “bottleneck” of people traveling west on U.S. Highway 12, McDowell said.
Whether river gauges are perfectly accurate or not, McDowell also said that if the NWS is preparing for the worst case scenario, then the DEM is, too.
“If we went with saying, ‘well I don’t think it’s going to get that high,’ and then it does and we get caught in the middle there, that’s not a good thing,” he said. “So, we’re gonna go with what they say. They are the experts at this. And I think it’s probably right on. The last one they did, they were just a little bit high (in their prediction) but that’s OK, I’d rather have them be high than be low.”
After “blatant” disregard for road closure signs during January flooding in the Chehalis River Basin, McDowell said, the sheriff’s office and state patrol will now begin issuing citations to drivers who drive on closed, flooded roads.
“(Drivers in flood water) are becoming a rescue for our swiftwater team and they’re losing the car. They're going to get cited, too, on top of that,” he said. “We want to make sure people know that it’s just not safe at all to walk in, swim in and don’t go fishing in it, whatever. Don’t do it. It’s not worth the risk.”
Though a flood warning had not yet been issued for the Cowlitz at Randle as of Monday at noon, Guy said it was likely the NWS hydrologists would do so, “given the trend of what the models are showing.”
Guy also noted that heavy rain can increase the risk of landslides and that people should keep an eye out for potentially destabilized ground.
For more detailed information from NWS on river forecasts, visit https://water.weather.gov/ahps/forecasts.php and select the river gauge nearest to the area of interest. Keep an eye on river levels in Lewis County at https://water.weather.gov/ahps2/index.php?wfo=sew. The DEM also posts timely updates on its Facebook page.
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