Less than a week into 2022, smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic, Mother Nature decided to unleash another round of rain-filled fury on Lewis County, Washington.
The latter part of this past week was filled with anxious times, nervous moments, and a lot of work to ensure people remained safe from rising floodwaters. And thankfully, for the most part, the floods didn’t pan out to be as bad as it could have been for most of us.
This site is primarily about biking, but when a large-scale event like this interrupts life as you know it, you write about it in the immediate aftermath. As such, here’s a recap of the past few days.
THE START OF IT ALL
Here in Centralia, we had a major snowstorm the day after Christmas that dumped more than 6 inches of snow in the lowlands and much more at higher elevations. In the week leading up to and through the New Year’s Day holiday, much of the ground stayed frozen as frigid temperatures dipped into the high teens and low 20’s. The snow and packed ice stuck around for over a week, throwing a major wrench into people’s normal routines.
This past week, the snow began to slowly thaw. Last Sunday temperatures rose above the freezing mark for the first time in days. Monday and Tuesday brought about some light rain that melted most of the remaining snow in the lowlands, and there were some rumblings in the forecast that an atmospheric river was going to shoot some significant rain our direction.
All one had to do was look back at 1996 to see how this weather scenario was likely to play out. In that flood, large swaths of the Pacific Northwest were impacted as a winter of heavy snow in the mountains gave way to a rapid warming trend that melted a bunch of that snow, brought significant rain, and caused rivers and creeks to rise.
At work we shared our memories of 1996. Fortunately for my family and I, we lived on a hill in Rainier, Oregon — yet we still felt the storm’s effects as hillsides across our area gave way and creeks rose, trapping us at home for the better part of a week.
It was a week I remember well. Now, 26 years later, I live just 54 miles away — but only five blocks from a river that was forecast to see moderate flooding.
The atmospheric river delivered as promised, and boy did it ever: constant heavy rain all day coupled with temperatures in the 50s. Distant hills, visible from roads in the Twin Cities of Centralia and Chehalis, still held a significant amount of snow at the storm’s onset. With the sharp rise in temperatures, that snow was going to melt rather rapidly and create a worrisome scenario for a lot of folks.
I made my way to work that morning, and it was absolutely pouring down rain. Salzer Creek, which is normally pretty calm even during rainstorms, was flowing fast in the morning but had not flooded anything yet, and I was able to make it to work my usual route: Tower Avenue from Centralia straight over the viaduct to Gold Street, then just a few miles into Chehalis.
River forecasts began to get my attention just an hour into work. You see, Centralia and Chehalis sit near the confluence of three rivers: the Skookumchuck, the Newaukum, and the Chehalis. The Skookumchuck and Newaukum flow from sources not too far from the Twin Cities, and the Chehalis has its source just a few miles west of Pe Ell. All three were projected to flood to at least “moderate” stage, which not only was bad news for folks living near the rivers, but certainly was for anyone living downstream from the confluences of these rivers.
Two hours into work that day, I was called over to help set up the Emergency Operations Center for our Sheriff’s Office. Anytime the EOC gets set up, you know things are projected to be bad. My colleagues and I got everything wired in and hooked up, and before long things were humming in the EOC as emergency managers, sheriff’s command staff, county commissioners and more made their way to and fro.
By early afternoon it was becoming apparent that the rain and snowmelt might make things worse. Suddenly, the Newaukum was predicted to hit major flood stage and set a record height by nearly a half-foot. The Chehalis was revised upward at Mellen Street in Centralia, and the problem was expected to significantly worsen six miles north in Grand Mound. And the Skookumchuck was given a dire prediction.
The National Weather Service changed its flood prediction for the Skookumchuck to record height, by more than two feet. Record floodwaters had hit my neighborhood in 1996, with water reaching my block but nothing significant. This time, with two more feet than that, the effects were predicted to be much worse.
I spent the rest of the day at work trying to concentrate on the work at hand, but pangs of worry began to hit. I don’t remember much more about the day at work other than hearing reports of rivers rising rapidly and streets needing to be closed in and around Centralia due to China Creek rising.
On my drive home, I realized how significant and severe the troubles were already in Centralia. And the Skookumchuck hadn’t even hit flood stage yet at 5 p.m.
On my drive back home to Centralia up Kresky Avenue, traffic began to back up before the hill near the Lewis County Mall. Once I crested that hill, I could see Salzer Creek had overtopped the roadway over the bridge just past Exhibitor Street. A car in front of me decided to risk it and drove through water up to the bottom of its doors.
I took no such chance and turned back to head to I-5 and go north.
Upon arriving into Centralia, I saw that several streets on my normal route had been closed. China Creek, which mostly flows underground and under several businesses and homes, had rapidly risen and flooded areas that normally don’t get hit.
It was bad. I couldn’t go north on Yew Street, east on Centralia College Boulevard or north on Washington. My only route home would be to take Tower Avenue north, which — oh yeah, goes over China Creek.
Several businesses in downtown Centralia were closed for the day due to the forecasted flooding. As I passed them, you could tell there was an urgency to their closure. Staff and volunteers had sandbagged several businesses’ doors and windows. People were taking this seriously.
China Creek was overflowing Tower Avenue, with about half a foot of water flowing over the roadway between Tiki Tap House and Bethel Church Downtown Centralia. Storm drains were overflowing, and the rain kept coming.
I was able to make it through, and I’m thankful I was. Someone later told me the creek basically bisected the town for a time, rendering the south part of town inaccessible to those living on the north side, and vice versa.
Predictions for the Skookumchuck River were still holding, so I had several conversations with my neighbors about whether or not we should voluntarily evacuate. I took a walk around my neighborhood and points south, getting photos when and where I could safely, as a way of sort of taking my mind off my own troubles.
I recorded a couple videos, too.
Here was the first one, from Washington and Main, just 10 blocks from my house:
Then I made my way to Centralia College, where China Creek had risen significantly and led to the campus shutting down for that evening and the next day:
It was obvious that swaths of Centralia were hit pretty hard by a creek not many expected to flood, but the rain had come down so furiously that day that the creek had nowhere to go but up, over and out. It wouldn’t fully recede until later the next day.
After my walk, I went home and my attention turned to the Skookumchuck. It was rising at a rate of about 4 inches per hour, and I began to contemplate whether or not I should consider evacuating as my house is just a few blocks south of the levee.
I prepared some food, checked in with some friends, and then got this on my phone in the form of a text, phone call and voicemail courtesy of the Lewis County Alert system:
You bet I was freaked out at this point. Conversations with some of my neighbors and friends intensified, and the general consensus was that those north of the railroad tracks three blocks south of the levee should probably go now, and those south of the tracks should prepare to leave should things get really bad.
I ended up posting about the alert on Facebook, and it ended up getting a good number of eyes on it. I worded my alert to my local friends very succinctly in a way they could understand urgently:
Your life is more important than any property you own.
I got a bag ready and chatted with my neighbor to the south, who is pretty well in the know and said he and his family were going to ride it out overnight and wake up early to see what happens. I decided the same thing, checked river levels and set an alarm for 5 a.m.
You bet I packed a bag. I put two changes of clothes, a bag of travel size toiletries and some charging cords and cables. If I had to ride it out, I had somewhere to go thanks to generous friends.
Right before I went to bed at midnight, the river’s advance slowed a bit and gave me a slight amount of confidence that things wouldn’t be as dire as originally predicted.
I still didn’t sleep much that night, and it was in fact the worst night of sleep I’ve ever had in my own bed.
After waking up several times throughout the night, I made the call to stick with the original plan to wake up at 5 a.m. I checked river levels, and I was surprised to see the river was rising slower than the trend indicated it would. The Skookumchuck was predicted at this point to crest a foot lower than the previous prediction.
I actually fell back asleep and got another fitful hour of “rest.”
Before long I made my way to work. I decided to treat this as a voluntary evacuation as well, bringing my bag of clothes and toiletries with me.
I made it in okay using Harrison Avenue and I-5, which both were completely fine in the morning. Most of my co-workers couldn’t make it in because of flooded roads near them, but fortunately they were all okay and safe at home.
Just an hour into my shift, such was not the case. In fact, the Skookumchuck started to spill over onto the Harrison corridor, prompting Centralia police to close the busiest street in town around the 10 a.m. hour.
Meanwhile, the Chehalis River was having its way with several low-lying neighborhoods and began to get dangerously close to I-5. The Washington State Department of Transportation made a decision to close I-5 between exits 68 and 88, and the parade of cross-state traffic tried making its way up side streets in an effort to somehow get north and south.
TV news helicopters showed footage of the rivers doing their damage in low-lying areas of Chehalis:
But in the middle of all this, we at work all noticed the faintest bit of blue sky start to bring sunshine and light through in the late morning. The worst was seemingly over, at least for most of us.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON & EVENING
I made my way through areas of Centralia that were previously flood-stricken by China Creek. The waters had subsided in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown and the college, and the creek was still swollen but within its banks. A day made a significant difference for the better.
Miraculously, the dire predictions for the Skookumchuck never came to pass. The neighborhoods on the south side of the levee west of Pearl Street were completely spared from any damage.
However, such wasn’t the case on the north side of the Skookumchuck. Pearl Street, which carries SR 507 between Centralia and points north, was closed at Sixth, just a few blocks east of me. The situation in the neighborhood north of the river became apparent in news reports and video from area residents.
It was clear that north Centralia would still be mostly inaccessible through the remainder of the day and evening. In fact, areas north of Centralia would get hammered pretty hard by both the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers.
Bucoda, a town in Thurston County about 10 miles northeast of downtown Centralia, was hit with moderate to major flooding. And south Thurston County communities of Rochester and Grand Mound would see the Chehalis River continue to rise Friday into Saturday.
Friday evening brought a bit of calm to my neighborhood, and although the river stayed high, it miraculously did not even eclipse the 1996 flood record. I can’t state how fortunate we are that the river did not overtop the levee; had it done so, my neighborhood would have been flooded and parts of downtown likely would have been as well.
I slept a LOT easier on Friday night.
The weather was actually pretty decent, and I decided to take a bike ride and head down to check the conditions of some of our recreational trails.
It felt good to both be back on the bike and be outdoors again, and breathing the fresh Northwest air on a weekend day is just what one needed.
Only one problem: that air carried a certain stench to it when I got a bit too close to the flooded Airport Road Trail in Centralia. Riding in this area was probably a bad move.
I had to turn around and head down Scheuber Road to get closer to the Willapa Hills Trail. Unfortunately, Highway 603 was closed, which meant access to the paved portion of the trail was cut off. So I decided to climb a few hills and take back roads over to the Adna Trailhead.
From Adna on west, it was amazing to see how high the Chehalis River still was from trestles that withstood yet another flood event.
While things in Centralia started to calm down considerably on Saturday, the story wasn’t the same for people to our north. Rochester and Grand Mound suffered from severe flooding of the Chehalis River, as predicted.
These two reports from The Chronicle in Centralia describe the damage to our area very well:
All told, the worst fears of a flood that would rival or surpass the 1996 and 2007 flood never came to pass. We are incredibly fortunate that the Skookumchuck didn’t come close to surpassing the record level predicted on Thursday.
But even though most of us were spared from significant damage, there are a lot of people who have gone through their own hell from this storm and flood. Fifty people evacuated their homes to a shelter set up at Centralia Middle School Thursday night, and one person in Cosmopolis died in the flood there.
There will be a lot of folks working hard to ensure that people affected by the storm get dried out and help their lives resume. The coming days and weeks will be tough for some people, but if what I saw during the storm was any indication, there are a lot of good citizens of our city and county who are willing to help and already doing so.
In fact, many of those people are the reason this flood was not worse than it was. I am super thankful for all of them.
POSTSCRIPT: ONE ORGANIZATION NEEDING OUR HELP
As I previously mentioned, there are a lot of people affected badly by the floods. The one organization I feel compelled to help is the Lewis County Gospel Mission. They’re based out of Chehalis and they serve as a day shelter and food ministry for a significant portion of our homeless and transient population.
The mission had at least two feet of water in their building, and getting it back up and operational again is going to take time, money and effort.
If you feel so inclined, please drop them a few dollars at their fundraiser over on Facebook. The generosity of people in our area has resulted in nearly $3,000 being raised as of the time of this writing.
I can think of no organization more deserving of support than the Lewis County Gospel Mission. Let’s be a blessing to them in their time of need. I have donated and I urge you to do the same.