It was a solemn scene on Friday: A tattered Centralia park and playground completed by the Rotary Club last year was still in disarray after intense Skookumchuck River flooding earlier this month.
It was an unfortunate sight at Rotary Riverside Park. And for one mother-of-three — U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler — it hit home.
“We don’t have a big, giant backyard, so I’m always availing myself of community things like this that are clean and nice and functional for my kids, and I’m sure folks here were doing the same,” said the 3rd Congressional District lawmaker. “And for this to get destroyed right after it was built is heartbreaking.”
Staff and elected officials with the City of Centralia and Lewis County took a short Friday morning stroll in the park with their congresswoman, telling Herrera Beutler about their experience responding to the historic flooding that took place nearly three weeks ago and detailing efforts to prevent future catastrophes.
Local city parks weren’t the only places hard hit. Lewis County Manager Erik Martin told Herrera Beutler the county has reported about $4 million in damage to public property so far, not including the 200 or so private buildings, businesses and homes that have so far reported damage.
But even that loss doesn’t come close to matching the 2007 flood, when roughly $300 million in public damage was reported, Martin said.
“We really dodged a bullet because the Chehalis stayed a little bit lower and was able to get that water released out of here quickly through from the Skookumchuck. If it would have not been able to release as quickly into the Chehalis, we would have had major, major issues,” Centralia Community Development Director Emil Pierson said.
Still, rivers rose dramatically on Jan. 6 and 7, resulting in the fifth-highest flood event on record for the Twin Cities.
Despite the Skookumchuck and Newaukum rivers inflating to near or exceed record-high levels, the combined power of those two rivers flooding and feeding into the Chehalis River never resulted in “catastrophic” flooding in the Chehalis Basin, though parts of Rochester were hit particularly badly.
At least 60 people remain displaced and in donation-funded hotel rooms, The Chronicle reported earlier this week.
“I just really appreciate Jaime coming and fighting for our community so that we’re getting the federal assistance that we need … She didn’t have to do that, but she did. And she’s been very accessible throughout this entire process,” said Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who represents Centralia and spoke with the congresswoman.
Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston said it was important to have federal leaders out to the park to get firsthand glances at what local governments are dealing with, as well as to keep collaborations close for all levels of government.
“What I’ve been thinking about is that flood response is not instantaneous,” she said. “It’s been decades of work that is often incremental that is adding up to make a difference. I think without that mitigation effort, this would be worse even if we got lucky with river levels and all of that.”
Municipal leaders also took the time to praise that work that has played out in recent years and continues to be conducted.
“This work is working,” said Centralia City Manager Rob Hill.
Pierson said between 1996 and 2007, more than 200 houses have been elevated and that work continues to this day.
Edna Fund, former Lewis County commissioner, also took time to highlight flood alert programs and other resources that were available to people and likely made a huge difference in responding to this flood, as compared to the 2007.
She’s been looking at the response as a win.
“It also shows (there’s) more opportunity to fine tune it,” she said.
The proposed flood retention dam near Pe Ell was also an underlying discussion topic. The project, proposed for the headwaters of the Chehalis River near Pe Ell, is currently undergoing finalized state and federal environment review. Herrera Beutler said she was most recently in contact with the Army Corps of Engineers on the project last December and is keeping that communication open. She said they’re keeping the agency accountable.
“Since I came into office, and to today, the big change has been the coordination of the flood control group,” Herrera Beutler said, referring to the Chehalis Basin Board. “They don’t always agree on everything, but they’ve moved this process forward in a Herculean way and have not walked away.”
The congresswoman told The Chronicle she expected the tour Friday would be more focused on FEMA response and tallying the damage, which is still underway. She said the tour and this most recent flood served as an example of the work that still needs to be done — specifically the dam.
“There will be things we’ll learn, and as things change I’m sure there’ll be more things we need to do. So, it’s not like we do this one effort and we’re done and we walk away, but I do think that is the linchpin really to the whole thing,” she said.
Flood mitigation will always be an adjustment — even after the dam is built, she said.
“The time is now for the flood-control structure,” she said.