Dual danger: floods, slides

S-E Staff Reporter

Governor declares State of Emergency as rising waters overtake area

Governor Jay Inslee declared a State of Emergency in Stevens County Monday afternoon, mobilizing the state National Guard and directing state and local agencies to take all necessary steps to protect citizens and property, and to restore public utility and transportation resources in the wake of record floods and rising landslide dangers across Northeastern Washington.

Hours earlier, the National Weather Service (NWS) in Spokane updated and extended existing flood warnings throughout the rest of the week, cautioning residents of Stevens, Pend Oreille, Franklin and Ferry Counties against imminent and ongoing danger of rising floodwaters and potential landslides and debris flows.

The Governor's proclamation, issued at 1:30 pm Monday, mobilized State resources for immediate deployment across 20 flood-stricken Washington counties, and availed local government and relief agencies of emergency cash flows and State resource pools.

In Stevens County, State Guardsmen are expected later this week to assist in the ongoing flood-related emergency, which began locally after a dramatic period of weather instability that saw snowstorms, heavy rain and record daytime high temperatures impacting the Colville area within a period of ten days.

As a result of the quick segue from winter to record daytime high temperatures, snow is melting faster than the ground can absorb it, complicating flood abatement and increasing the danger of landslides, State Meteorologists say.

Consequently, forecasters expect flood-related danger to exist throughout the week regardless of weather conditions.

“The unusually wet and snowy winter raised the water table unusually high over North Idaho and a large portion of Washington. Flooding is ongoing in many areas. Despite today`s drier weather flooding issues will persist,” Monday's bulletin stated.

Floodwaters rise

Local flooding began as rising temperatures burned through area snowpack last week, inundating low-lying areas with meltwater and saturating the ground with moisture.
By Friday, a week of wild weather had taken its toll. Area reservoirs topped up and connecting outlets, choked with runoff, began to pressure rivers, streams, lakes and low-lying areas. Flooding began across Stevens County.

On Saturday, significant flooding was reported in the communities of Colville, Chewelah, Kettle Falls and Addy, with run-off collecting in the basements of residential structures and floodwaters overtaking area roads.

Early Sunday saw the state-mandated closure of U.S. 395 northbound just north of Colville, as the Colville River overtook the interstate highway for the first time in recent history.
To the south, the Spokane River hit flood stage for the first time in five years Sunday, rising to 27.5 feet -- almost five and a half feet above normal levels.

Warnings extended

On Monday afternoon, the weather service in Spokane updated existing flood warnings, calling increased attention to rising waters and ground instability near Colville.

Monday's NWS Flood Warning highlighted the ongoing flooding of the Colville River, which overtopped U.S. 395 north of Colville and approaching Kettle Falls; and the danger presented by water-logged soils and rising water tables, calling “conditions ripe for dangerous landslides and debris flows,” across Stevens County. State hydrogeologists warned area residents “with homes on or at the base of hillsides (to) be aware of the potential for landslides and (to) watch for trees leaning in unusual orientations.”

Additional signs of imminent slide danger include the presence of ground water and/or mud seepage in unexpected areas, and State officials urged residents to quickly report such evidence to local law enforcement.

Respect closures

Meanwhile, the Washington State Patrol reminded drivers that flood waters present a fatal danger to drivers, urging motorists to respect posted closures.

Rising waters forced the closure of US 395 north of Colville and approaching Kettle Falls on Sunday, but the state patrol says some drivers prefer to ignore posted closures and challenge rising floodwaters.

On Monday morning, two local motorists were cited and released after attempting to thwart the flood-plagued closure of US 395, and the State Patrol issued a statement reminding others with similar ideas that roads are closed for a reason.

“Water over the roadway poses a deadly danger to motorists and pedestrians. Just six inches of moving water can knock you down and less than two feet of water can sweep a vehicle away,” read a State Patrol bulletin, reminding drivers that even apparently minor flooding can become deadly, as it is nearly impossible for drivers to correctly gauge the depth or rate of increase with regard to rising floodwaters.

As the S-E went to press Monday afternoon, U.S. 395 northbound remained closed between mileposts 231.5 and 233, just north of Williams Lake Road. No detour is in place for northbound traffic and vehicles are advised to seek alternate routes. Southbound traffic will follow signed detour in place.

The current conditions may last for some time, forecasters say, as the weekend’s break in rainfall was expected to last only through Monday before giving way to an unsettled and wet weather pattern later in the week.