On Saturday morning and well into the afternoon, a strong current of flood waters over U.S. Highway 12 near Moon Road in Rochester stretched as far as the eye could see. Fish swam over the road.
West Thurston Regional Fire Authority Chief Robert Scott said in his 36-year career, he’s never before seen the water cover the highway like that.
For days, he and dozens of other first responders had been working around-the-clock out of the station, which had been transformed into an emergency operations center (EOC).
The station deployed responders to over 10 different rescues by early Saturday afternoon.
The Chehalis River at Grand Mound didn’t crest until around 8 a.m. Saturday.
When it did crest at 145.21 feet, it climbed well into the National Weather Service’s major flooding category, about 2 feet under the all-time record set at the location in the flood of 2007.
By 4 p.m., the same point was measured at less than a foot under the same height as the crest.
In other words, there was an enormous amount of water flooding the area and it wasn’t going away quickly.
The river was forecast to remain in the major flood category until early Sunday morning.
Late Friday night, one resident was driving on a closed Prather Road in Rochester when the deep water swept his vehicle out 500 yards. He climbed to the top of his vehicle as it continued to move down toward the river and used his cell phone to call for help.
West Thurston Fire was able to coordinate with the water rescue crew from the Lacey Fire Department to save the man from the 38-degree water and transport him to Providence Centralia Hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia.
Other rescues required boats, trucks or even helicopters. The majority of those were for people who “knowingly or willfully went around a ‘road closed’ sign,” Scott said.
He shares that message not to cast shame, but to prevent having to perform those kinds of missions in the future, which would greatly relieve some of the strain on his highly-fatigued crew.
“We're already taking resources away from somewhere else. If somebody has another incident that’s more life-threatening … that's a problem,’” Scott said. “Don’t drive through moving water. And obey the signs. There’s a lot of debris (that only becomes visible) as roads become clear. Whatever is in the water there is on the road’s surface. … It only takes a few inches of water to move a car.”
Another rescue West Thurston Fire was involved with was for a car crash victim in Grays Harbor County who sustained a head injury. Other crews who responded included Grays Harbor County Fire District 1, Lacey Fire District 3 and the Chehalis Tribal Police. The victim had to be transported through floodwaters over to Thurston County, where he was evaluated before being transported to St. Peter Providence Hospital.
Trained responders were able to take the victim over the county line through the swift waters via truck, but others on sight were ready with boats in case that didn’t work. They were able to successfully get the patient into an ambulance.
When it comes to flood response, Scott said, his team is made of seasoned veterans.
"A lot of people that are here on this operation have done flooding before. They've done large fires," he said. "Really, this is no different than managing a fire incident. You take the emergency, whatever you put in there. Train crash, flooding, earthquake: we approach it the same way. A risk-benefit assessment. ‘Is this safe to go through? Yes or no?’ And if it’s not safe we make a safe alternative. We already have helicopters on stand-by.”
United Way of Thurston County is launching an emergency assistance fund for those impacted by the flood.
“This is a rapidly developing event. As the floodwaters recede, we will have teams assessing the impacted areas and will have more details in the coming days regarding immediate needs,” said Sandy Eccker, manager at Thurston County Emergency Management.
United Way is accepting donations to the fund online at www.unitedway-thurston.org/eaf. All donations made will be used to provide rapid financial assistance to those impacted by the crisis. Any remaining funds will be held to address future local emergencies.
The nonprofit planned on sharing a more detailed list of where the fund will be spent early next week.
Individual and corporate gifts can also be made in-person or by mail at United Way of Thurston County, located at 3525 Seventh Ave. SW, Suite 201, Olympia.