(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated that Killebrew Lake Road was expected to be reopened on Feb. 21, but the road opened sooner — on Feb. 10)
Islanders woke up on Feb. 1 to find severe flooding had occurred throughout the county.
On San Juan, Bailer Hill Road was closed because it was covered in water; on Lopez, Fisherman Bay Road was buried in nearly a foot of stormwater; and on Orcas, Killebrew Lake Road had a gaping hole from where the road had entirely washed away.
“The county would like to thank citizens for their patience as we work to resolve drainage and flooding issues resulting from weeks of moderate to high-intensity storms, which have saturated the Islands,” Kendra Smith, environmental resources manager for San Juan County Public Works said. “Even with all this valuable water recharging our groundwater and surface water resources, please remember to conserve and be water-wise in the summer.”
Roads flood for a variety of reasons, Smith explained. The extended duration and intensity of recent storms resulted in the full saturation of watersheds resulting in water having nowhere else to go except to the lowest points.
“There are locations where the culverts are too small to handle the flow, or they were clogged with debris coming down the creeks or ditches, or they are very old and simply collapsed,” Smith said. “There are also places where the road is sitting too low, relative to the natural ponding that occurs across the landscape (Bailer Hill and San Juan Valley Roads for example).”
San Juan County Department of Emergency Management Brendan Cowan suggested that islanders keep culverts and drainages clear to help alleviate flooding when the rains do come. He also encouraged islanders to consider having sandbags and other barriers on hand if your property is prone to flooding.
“Understand your insurance coverage. Most homeowner policies do not cover flooding,” Cowan said. “Talk to your insurance agent about flood coverage if you live in a flood-prone area.”
Smith noted that impervious cover — such as roads, parking lots, houses, etc. — affect stormwater’s ability to drain. Bedrock also acts as an impervious surface, she added. Because of the high amounts of rain the county has experienced recently, the soils are full and water is rapidly running off.
According to Smith, reconstruction of Killebrew Lake Road began on Feb. 4 and a temporary emergency fix was performed with the road being reopened on Monday, Feb. 10. Eventually, she added, a larger culvert crossing will need to be installed to both mitigate flood potential as well as facilitate fish passage.
“The work will be completed as quickly and safely as possible,” Smith said. “The steep and unstable site conditions and anticipated additional rains forecasted this week are likely to impact the pace of the repair.”
Cowan explained that if a driver comes across a flooded road, they should turn around and not attempt to drive through the water. If the area is not blocked off or does not have signage, he said to report it to San Juan County Dispatch at 360-378-4151.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as little as six inches of water can cause a driver to lose control of their vehicle or cause the car to stall. The National Weather Service said to never drive through flooded roadways as the condition of the road under the water is unknown. More than half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous flood water, according to the NWS.
“Heavy rains are an infrequent but completely expected part of winter in the islands,” Cowan said. “Building smart, minimizing impervious surfaces, preserving existing vegetation, and thinking carefully about the location of new construction can all help minimize problems in the future.”
On Feb. 5, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation for 19 Washington counties due to the significant rains forecasted to continue through the weekend.
“These storms caused injuries, significant power outages, evacuations, road damage, temporary road closures and detours, rail line closures, and extensive damage to homes, businesses, public utilities, public facilities, electrical power systems, infrastructure and property,” Inslee said in the proclamation.
The proclamation includes Clallam; Clark; Cowlitz; Grays Harbor; Island; Jefferson; King; Kitsap; Lewis; Mason; Pacific; Pierce; San Juan; Skagit; Skamania; Snohomish; Thurston; Wahkiakum; and Whatcom counties.
The proclamation directs state agencies to use state resources to assist affected communities. It also allows the state to apply for the federal Department of Transportation funds to help repair affected roads.