Friday, January 9, 2009

The Politics of Disaster

First a personal update to let you know that we are OK. As bad as things seem here I realize that as Alfred Hitchcock said, “It’s only a movie.” Meaning no one is dead or injured; this is not a life threatening situation and baring any big surprises we’ll get through this.

And a thank you:
You’ve called, emailed, mind-melded, and otherwise made contact to check up on us. You have offered to help, to bring things to us, to rescue us in every way. Thanks for your thoughts and especially for your prayers. Our old friend D called for a status check and to say he still had a vacant house in Centralia if we were interested. Of course, we’re sort of cut off here, not just from Centralia but from most places. Please know just hearing from you is reassuring. It reminds us that humans are the best people!

Yesterday, Thursday we got a break in the weather. I woke to an eerie silence. In the pre-dawn light I could just make out that the water had gone down a bit, the wind was still, and it was not raining. Through the day there was little or no rain and the water continued to drop.

I’ve been called a sand bagger many times in the past, this time it was well deserved. The city makes a deal with the residents: They supply the sand, the county supplies the bags, and we provide the Swedish backhoe powered by Armstrong, and a little elbow grease. We picked through last year’s rotting canvas bags :

And when those were depleted we went to work filling new bags. Troy had picked up 100 new bags and he and Chris and I made short work of them. Troy’s strategy is to divert the water away from the house should the flow come as is it did last year across the back of our property. It was a productive day and there is great therapy in being able to do something that you think will help, all the while knowing that something is bearing down on you.

The night descended and we settled in, waiting for what was to come next.
It wasn’t much of a wait. By 8:00 the water was up, a lot, and rising fast. This had everyone along the lane out with flashlights patrolling our respective shrinking islands of refuge.

By 2:00 am the worst was done. Almost as a tease the dramatic rate of rise slacked off and water levels flirted at the edges of foundations, just off porches and patios, only inches from foundation vents under homes. But the water continued it’s inexorable rise. Despite the darkness, at 3:00 am I could tell that water was getting in under our homes. Obviously some, many of us will have to replace the under house infrastructure, the insulation the ducting, the house's ‘underpants’; that stuff that isn’t flashy but without which the house just does not work.

What about us? So far I think we are good under the house. When you raise the house you buy a little more time, a little bigger gap that may make the difference between disaster reconstruction and just some heavy duty cleanup: Pumping out the crawl space, power washing the driveway, returning the neighbors fire wood and wayward lawn ornaments, vs dragging out heaps of soggy, wet insulation.

But because we in Oakville are "special" we can assume that the water may continue to rise for most of today, how much remains to be seen. The early morning TV news announces that today, Friday, January 9th the worst is past; almost all rivers are now falling, people are starting to move back to their homes and the disaster recovery is beginning. Almost all rivers have crested. As near as I can tell there is one river that has not yet crested, one place where the worst is yet to come: That’s the Chehalis at Porter. That’s our benchmark, and the river is not projected to crest at Porter until 4:00 pm today. One of those times when you wish you were not so special.

Yesterday the Lt Governor and the Director of WASHDOT held a press conference. They talked about the fact that I-5 is now closed at Centralia and that the river was not scheduled to crest there until Thursday night. They made much of the impacts to commerce: over 7,000 commercial vehicles use that arterial in a day and for every day that it is unavailable there is about a $4 million impact. This problem compounded by the fact that all three of the major cross state highways through the Cascade moutains are blocked by slides or flooding. The Chehalis River is diked through Centralia so when the freeway floods, it can take a long time for the water to find it‘s way back into the channel which of course extends the time the freeway is closed and exacerbates the financial impact.

But the big hats also know that once the river crests in Centralia, all they have to do is breach the dikes and as the river recedes it will drain the freeway and surrounding areas. Simple enough: take a couple big track hoes, cut a few holes in the dikes and as the river falls it takes their problem away. The little wrinkle in this elegant solution which relies so heavily on forces of nature is that the water doesn’t really ‘go away’, it goes downstream: To places like the Chehalis Indian Reservation, Rochester, Porter, other little no name places where there is no $4 million dollar impact. Just families, farmers, cows, goats, and chickens. Our little downstream burg of Oakville is just such a place.

I understand the logic, I get that decisions sometimes have to be made where a few may have to sacrifice so that the many may benefit. But here is my beef with how these decisions seem to play out: If somewhere someone or ’the many’ are going to experience a $4 million dollar daily benefit consider this: If you’re going to send your problem down steam, think about sending a little of the benefits downstream too. I don’t want a $1,000 rebate check, I don’t want a stimulus package or a bailout, I don’t even want $4 million, but a little help cleaning up this mess, or better yet assistance with mitigation so that we don’t have these downstream problems next time would be most appreciated. This doesn’t require a rocket science solution, no ‘out of the box’ problem solving needed. There are lots of examples of effective flood mitigation, and this we could use some help with.

But we’re small, we don’t have a huge $4 million a day revenue generator, and in fact in terms of politics we are sort of a lost corner. Oakville is in east Grays Harbor County. The County’s political and economic center is to the west in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, port towns. For them, we’re just a little village up river, away from the action. From my house it is less than five miles to the Thurston county line. Rochester is in Thurston County but it too is far removed from Olympia, the county’s economic hub, also the state Capitol. To the south it’s less than 5 miles as the crow flies, (or perhaps as the salmon swims today) to the Lewis county line. Centralia and Chehalis are the power centers in Lewis County. These other places know we exist but that’s about it as far as it goes for consideration. Oakville isn’t anywhere to go, it’s a place you might pass through if you were on your way to “somewhere”. All that is fine with me, I’ve lived in a lot of small places (and a few big ones) in my life and it’s not by accident. We’re happy with our lot, we’re not necessarily looking for a handout, we’ll do our part, but a little assistance to help with the problems that come down the river would be appreciated.

One “hero’ that deserves recognition this go round is the National Weather Service website. Last weekend when I saw the prediction for a whole week of hard rain (I was looking for days that I might be able to ride my bike to work!) I began surfing the NWS site. As the flood threat became a reality we relied heavily on the information they provide. Mrs C found their Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Page and figured out how to get specific information about predicted flood times, levels, and locations. There is no question that in the absence of facts my cynical nature will let the demons grow by orders of magnitude. The NWS helped us manage our fears and make effective use of our time in preparing for the flood. Dear Mr Obama: I know we need a stimulus package, I know we need to bail out the poor struggling financial indistry to the tune of of $7 billion(!), but please do not cut the budget of the NWS! They helped me a lot (a lot more than the banking industry!)

It’s 10:30 am now and the water appears to be receding. Slowly but surely our lives are sliding back towards normal. There will be some re-building to do, there will be lots of power washing, lots of scrubbing and lots of disinfecting but fortunately it does not look like we will have week long dumpster marathons with mountains of soggy carpet, sheet rock, insulation, mattresses etc. Talking with neighbors up and down the lane, looking out on the broad expanse of beige colored water, all have expressed a measure of thankfulness. How odd that we can be standing out in the yard looking at this mess and still be thankful that it isn’t worse.

Some of us, however find this interruption to our routines just a triful annoying!

We hope you all are doing well and that you can find some way to do something to help those less fortunate. For us, the water appears ot be slowly recedeing. We are by degrees exhausted. We'll take cat nap, keeping an eye out for any last minute suprise the flood might have up it's sleeve.


Every flood begets a party! You are all hereby on notice that we will have another disaster celebration BBQ sometime next year, and you are invited.

By my calculation, we should be through with flooding now for about the next 1,000 years, but maybe the commemorative party will become an annual event.