Wednesday, April 12, 2017
APRIL SHOWERS: Few things about weather in the Pacific Northwest are certain, but when the National Weather Service predicts—as they did last weekend—the chance of rain is 100 percent, you’d better prepare. As Mark Twain once quipped, “We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done about it.”
In a way, though, that’s not altogether true.
Heavy rains have triggered landslides and fears of landslides, road failures and fear of road failures, and that in turn has produced action.
Residents near the community of Oso temporarily evacuated their homes on a rainy night last week due to fears of a slow-moving landslide. People living near the site of the deadly 2014 landslide noticed cracks and faults along a road that connects to Highway 530 in Snohomish County and called authorities. Geologists will continue to monitor the area, which is still unstable from the more violent slope failure three years ago that engulfed 49 homes in an unincorporated neighborhood on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.
Certainly less devastating but closer to home, the popular Hertz Trail along the north shore of Lake Whatcom remains partially and temporarily closed while parks crews clean up landslide debris. Repeated freezing and thawing of snow and ice, working like a pickaxe in weaknesses in the steep slopes above, likely helped produce the slide.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources released a guide and report this week in tandem with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to help homeowners identify and reduce landslide hazards around the home.
As noted in their report, landslides are one of the most common natural hazards in the Pacific Northwest. One cubic foot (7.5 gallons) of water weighs 62.3 pounds, increases downward force on steep slopes, and the region receives gallons and gallons of rain in this season. Due to steep topography and heavy precipitation, Washington and Oregon are some of the most landslide-prone states in the country. This winter’s heavy snow and rain totals—at record levels in February and March—have resulted in a high number of landslides in both states.
“The direct cost of landslide damage includes the repair of roads and property and the loss of life,” DNR geologists note in their report. “Indirect costs, such as loss of property value and tax revenue, and environmental effects, such as the degradation of water quality, can exceed direct costs. The Washington Department of Transportation routinely budgets $15 million a year for cleanup of landslides on highways. Nationally, landslides exceed $2 billion in loss each year and result in an estimated 25–50 deaths.”
Whatcom County Council is currently at work methodically updating sections on geological hazards in the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance—a balancing document that attempts to govern and protect resource lands and the ecological processes that sustain them, while allowing for appropriate productive use of that land and property. They will present those updates in a public meeting later this spring, and the updates will most certainly include discussion on recent heavy weather events.
Responding to weather incidents statewide, Governor Jay Inslee this week submitted a request for federal aid to help 15 counties recover from the impacts of severe winter storms including Whatcom and Snohomish counties. Inslee urged the Trump administration to consider the cumulative impacts of weather-related disasters on the state and all its counties since 2015. Severe weather, floods, high winds and wildfires cost the state more than $323 million during this period, with the federal government providing $155 million in disaster assistance and emergency aid to local, state and tribal governments.
“Winter storms caused injuries, power outages impacting 100,000 customers, and other significant disruptions around the state,” Inslee noted. “Cleaning up and repairing damages will take months to years, and our local communities will benefit greatly from federal assistance.”
Whatcom County declared an emergency in early February, citing winter storms with heavy snow, extended arctic winds, and periodic power outages. The county suffered freezing rain and ice-covered roadways creating hazardous and impassable road conditions, with heavy rains flooding snow-filled ditches. Inland cities of Everson and Lynden experienced a large amount of debris from the snow and freezing rain, making safe passage on roads almost impossible. High flows from snow melt caused a massive culvert failure in the farmland district and a sinkhole created a 20-25-foot gap that required emergency shoring of the road and removal of the culvert, the governor detailed in his letter.
If the president agrees to the governor’s request, this storm would be the fifth major disaster declared in the state in less than two years.
Much of the damage identified in preliminary damage assessment by the federal Emergency Management Agency in late March was to roads. The freeze-thaw cycle caused significant damage to foundations, pavement and drainage systems to more than 750 local and state roadways.
FEMA’s public assistance program, if granted by the president, would provide grants of 75 percent for the eligible cost of emergency response, debris removal and repairs to damaged infrastructure. Typically, the remaining 25 percent is split between the state and impacted jurisdictions. A decision on the state-local cost share will be made in the Legislature in coming weeks.
The Pacific Northwest, according to all models, is expected to ride out the coming years of increasing climate instability and catastrophic storm events with comparative calm in contrast to climate disasters forecast for other portions of the continent. It will rain, though—longer, heavier, perhaps more erratic and less seasonally useful than in the past. Preparedness and planning policy is our only umbrella.