MOUNT VERNON — Although a warm and sunny October has few thinking of winter and high water just yet, Skagit County officials already are preparing for a catastrophic flood.
“We hope for no flooding, but we are prepared,” said Skagit County Public Works Director Henry Hash during a breakfast Wednesday, attended by his department, police, firefighters, elected officials and the Army Corps of Engineers.
“If we do get flooded, it would not be for lack of effort and knowledge and experience by us,” Hash added.
The breakfast was part of Skagit County’s Flood Awareness Week, what’s become an annual event to assess and implement flood preparedness measures in an area that’s experienced its fair share of flood events. The week includes other events to train county and city staff to protect the public during a flood.
This year is an El Niño year, meaning sea surface temperatures are warmer than usual, said Brent Bower, a senior service hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
This could mean we’re in for a milder winter, slightly warmer and drier than average, he said. Storms are more likely to hit southern California than the Northwest in an El Niño system.
Still, this year’s El Niño is weak, Bower warned. It could turn neutral, negating the lower temperature and precipitation predictions. Even if it doesn’t, that smaller amount of rain could hit all at once, resulting in a flood.
“None of these climate signals prevent floods,” Bower said.
It’s best to be prepared no matter what, he urged.
Part of what Skagit County is doing to prepare is the Skagit River General Investigation Study, which examines basin-wide impacts of various flood-control options. Several officials praised the study in their comments, and thanked U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen for helping secure funding for it.
“Getting money for the GI has lasted almost as long as the Trojan wars,” Larsen joked in his speech at the breakfast.
But the congressman became more serious when the subject of spending cuts came up.
With no changes to the budget, nationwide funding for the Army Corps of Engineers will be cut by $580 million in 2013, he said. He urged attendees to call Skagitonians to action to defend Corps funding.
The Corps helps the county and local dike districts with disaster preparedness, emergency preparations and rehabilitating damaged levees. Its main role during a flood is to protect infrastructure such as utilities and roads, which frees up local agencies to protect individuals’ homes.
“Our goal is to keep the fish in the water and the people dry,” said Eric Winters, of the Army Corps of Engineers. “…This area up here is beautiful, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton echoed the importance of the Corps, along with county support, to protecting his constituents’ lives and property.
“From a Burlington perspective, this is a huge issue for us year in and year out,” he said.
A big focus of the day was how to keep county residents safe and informed on what to do during a flood.
“Unless they respond, all we’ve done is talk about it,” Bower said.
At a flood-preparedness exercise in Burlington after the breakfast, officials discussed ideas for and the challenges of evacuating Mount Vernon if the Skagit River starts to flood the city between Interstate 5 and the railroad tracks.
“Once we learn there’s a problem with the dike, things have to start in motion,” said Mike Voss, of the Mount Vernon Fire Department.
Officials didn’t come up with a solid plan because they said everything depends on the severity of the flood and where the water goes. However, they discussed possible responses, including closing roads and transporting people who need extra help evacuating.
If evacuating Mount Vernon is necessary, Mount Vernon police will notify people and control traffic, helping drivers avoid potential flood areas and blocking anyone from coming in. They would probably close College Way, said new Interim Police Chief Jerry Dodd.
Ideas, such as sending out flood-preparedness reminder letters or having Skagit Transit buses carry people out of the city, were floated at the exercise.
Everyone at the exercise agreed that it’s most important to be cautious — better to evacuate people in a smaller flood than leave them in their homes to face a potentially larger one.
“Otherwise, we’re going to be picking people off rooftops with helicopters,” Voss said.
Everyone from small single-person homes to large facilities such as hospitals needs to have a flood plan and follow it when told, Voss said.
“We have plenty of national examples of failure to heed the advice of experts,” he said.
Mark Watkinson, of Skagit County Emergency Management, praised all the agencies for working together, saying it was key to keeping everyone safe.
“None of us singularly can match the threat of the river,” he said.