Dramatic Flooding in Chehalis Valley  12-04-07

History:  The upper & eastern half of the Chehalis River drains approximately 1,300 square miles of area.  The late winter of 2007 there was unprecedented rainfall, with over 15" recorded at Pe Ell in 2 days & over 9" farther downstream at Adna in 3 days during the same period & 1 day later.   There was also snow on Baw Faw peak.  This was apparently the aftermath of a hurricane in the South Pacific Ocean as we got the rain Lewis County & Pacific County (nearer the coast) got winds up to 150 MPH.  The temperature was 51 degrees during the day & snow melt on the high country added to the raising water.  Recently logged off land in the upper watersheds may have also contributed to some degree.

The standard used for most flooding in this whole area is taken from the river height gauge at the old Centralia water treatment plant off Mellon Street bridge.  Normal river height this time of the year is about 49'.  The flood stage height for flood level one is 65'.  Flood level four is 73'.   The 1996 flood peaked at 73.36'.  This rain in 2007 pushed the river up & over it's banks quite rapidly & finally crested at about 3AM of 12-04-07 at very close to 75'.  

Sequence of What Happened:
  Areas of major damage were in the Pe Ell, Doty/Dryad, Boistfort/Curtis & Adna areas.  Downstream & of course later as the water traveled there, the Chehalis, Centralia & the Rochester/Independence area also received major flooding.

The first indication came from major flooding upstream in the Pe Ell & Doty areas & at the same time at the Boistfort/Curtis areas.  These are two different watersheds draining the east & west sides of Baw Faw peak that then merge below the Curtis area.   The main reports initially came from the Pe Ell/Doty area.   The Boistfort area was hit equally hard, but they are a somewhat more isolated community & reports did not get out as fast.

For some reason the Emergency Management  people did not believe what they heard or saw on the USGS river height gages http://waterdata.usgs.gov/wa/nwis/current/?type=flow.  Or they were not set up to react fast enough.  The local fire departments were among the first to offer rescue assistance.

The Chehalis River channel from Doty downstream to Adna is narrow & somewhat deep, after that, the river bed shallows up forcing the water over the banks & into the farmland & residential areas.  The main Chehalis had enough water coming downstream & as it continued gaining water from the side creeks increased the flow.  Water & debris continued downstream over the banks so fast & started stacking up against bridges which could not stand up to this force.  When one bridge went, the debris then going faster stacked against the next bridge & like dominos, in a short time 3 vehicle bridges & 1 railroad bridge, plus the newly constructed foot bridge at rainbow Falls, in approximately 4 miles from Dryad to Meskil were wiped out.

Reports are that one family in the Doty/Dryad area got a phone call & had only 10 minutes to evacuate.  All they saved was a few pictures as they ran out of the house & could get back in for another grab.

There is some thoughts that possibly a large mud slide in the upper main Chehalis River watershed (timber industry land) that may have created a dam or 2 that broke loose.  This is also indicated by the color & the amount of silt of the main rivers water at least 2 weeks later, as compared to the smaller side creeks that cleared up rather rapidly. 

This has the appearance of also happening on the South Fork of the Chehalis river, as indicated by all the debris jammed up at the Lost Valley Rd in the Boistfort valley.  

At the same time South Fork of the Chehalis River (a slightly smaller river) draining the Boistfort/Curtis valley was doing the same thing in it's own way.  Here, as on the main Chehalis River, the appearance of possible upstream damming on the South Fork is indicative by logging debris being swept downstream creating a valley wide log-jam at the Lost Valley Rd. just above the Boistfort School.  Look at the pictures below & they sure look like debris from recent logging & not logs that have been laying along the river bank & rotting for years.  A couple of miles below there, the community of Curtis was inundated, a few homes had water up to the eaves.  One dairy farm lost all of it's cattle.  This very high water there was possibly aggravated by the 2 rivers converging about another mile downstream.

Then a couple more miles downstream near the Lewis County Bunker Road Dept. shop, the river narrows & has a corner with a high steep rock wall on the outside corner with a high bank on the other side.  At this location was an abandoned railroad bridge which was taken over the the State Parks Dept. as a "Rails to Trails" 50 mile hiking path from the city of Chehalis to Raymond on the coast.   This created another bottleneck that ultimately took out this high (about 60' to the normal water height) steel railroad bridge.  This bridge was apparently not wiped out because of debris backing up against the main span, but possibly against the northern shore piling & then taking out that section, as it appears water was only within possibly 8; of the actual span structure.  With this gone there was no real blockage & the water then flowed out over the farmland below & then into the small town of Adna.  When this bridge went out, it swung to the south shore, accumulating debris & narrowing the river which forced water to the north shore & washed the river bank out leaving a house with it's deck hanging over the river bank as shown in one of the pictures below.

About a mile farther downstream, one more dairy farmer lost all but 12 of his 220 herd of cattle & his estimate of loss is 1 million dollars.  Only about 3 dairy farmers in this area were slightly high enough to have had minimal losses.

Downstream another 2 miles at Adna, the 20 year new Hiway bridge created another dam forcing much water into the town of Adna.  This bridge replaced an old bridge that had 2/3rds of it's span setting on 30' piling across a farmers field, which allowed any high water a wider flow path under the bridge deck.  The new lower concrete bridge just spans the river & the rest across the field, (where the older one was on piling) is now a land fill creating a partial dam.  But those Hiway Dept. engineers went to college & know what they are doing???? Yah Right!!!!

Downstream another 5 miles the Chehalis & Centralia area is another bottleneck where 2 rivers converge with the main Chehalis, Newaukum & Skookumchuck.  The Newaukum River (also in flood stage) enters the main Chehalis at the southern edge of the city of Chehalis, adding more water to the system.  And here the interstate freeway (I-5) passes thru the 2 towns.  There were dikes around the airport & the Lewis County fairgrounds of which this higher water than ever before overflowed & inundated everything inside.  The freeway had 8' of water over it at exit 79, partly as the result of the airport dike overflowing.  

At the same time there is a small creek, the Dillinbaugh, that feeds into Chehalis from the east & is supposed to cross under I-5 near exit 77.   But if the river gets high enough it backs up the Dillinbaugh into town & then overflows from the east onto I-5.

At Centralia, the Skookumchuck enters the main Chehalis River between exit 81 & 82 adding it's contribution.  The one thing that helped this time is that there was less rainfall in this particular watershed & that there is a dam on the upper Skookumchuck that helped holding back much of the excess flow from that river.

Also over the years high waters have built up a gravel hump in the river below Centralia, creating it's own restriction.  No governmental authority seems to want to stick their neck out & authorize removal of gravel anywhere along the river to help alleviate this problem.

The water came up so fast that many dairy farmers lost their animals still in the barns.    Some that were outside got drowned & swept downriver.  County roads were severely damaged & many concrete bridges swept away.  Major mudslides occurred on state & county roads.  Power was knocked out in some areas.  Businesses were severely damaged to the point that many may never reopen.  Homes were washed off their foundations, vehicles were washed away & submerged.  Those homes that survived had anywhere from just inches, up to 8' of water inside them.  There are stories of people being rescued off house roof-tops while the house was floating down the river.   One house in Curtis was washed off the foundation  which was later bulldozed down & burned. 

At the time of the actual flooding into downtown, our local AM radio station, (the one apparently designated as the emergency one) got flooded out, so there was no radio broadcasts until after the flood crested, & then from a makeshift location at the transmitter tower by that stations sister FM station.  These young men really provided a very needed communication link from the county Emergency Management, United Way, Red Cross, Salvation Army with information as to shelters, help & a multitude of information.  They had people on the ground, driving around & reporting back as to what road were inundated or were not passable. One thing I did not see was that I had my NOAA emergency radio near all the time & never had it activate.

The USCG, National Guard, & US Navy helicopters evacuated many people.  Law Enforcement & many private boats also picked people up & transported them to higher ground.   The Emergency Management people said later that this was the largest evacuation since hurricane Katrena.

Destruction Everywhere:  The freeway was inundated even after the main river went down because the airport dike now locked the water inside.   At the peak of flooding & for a few days later, the freeway was closed for about 20 miles.  The Chehalis city fathers would not act fast enough authorizing their airport dike to be breeched, (allowing the water out), so the DOT hiway people did it on their own freeway right of way property.  This then allowed the freeway to reopen about 2 days faster.   While the freeway was shut down, freight trucks began stacking up as there was no straight road from Portland Oregon to Seattle Washington, without going east up the Columbia River from Portland, then north thru Yakima, then farther north into Ellinsburg & then west on I-90 into Seattle, an 80 mile detour.  there were estimates of 4 million dollars a day being lost in commercial business because of the freeway being closed.

When the water went down debris & destruction was everywhere.  It sure cleaned up some peoples back yards, while adding a lot more to others.  Silt was everywhere.   The roads were covered with this silt & the vehicles that did any traveling took on a brown chocolate color no matter what the original color was.   Homes that the doors were closed or the windows did not get broken had only about 1/2" inside on everything, but outbuildings & any low spots that the water took a while to drain off had from 2" to 4" of a light brown, sticky, gooey, mucky silt all over.   The main river stayed a chocolate brown for weeks.

One tug boat owner who had his boat moored on the Chehalis river in Aberdeen, (way downriver & close to the ocean) said from the deck of his boat he saw lots of debris, dead cows, refrigerators, even house roofs floating by.

As of 12-13-07 the estimate of damage was 36 million in public property damage (probably mostly to roads), & 75 million dollars to private property.

The Governor of Washington State has declared these counties a disaster & President Bush as proclaimed them that also thereby allowing FEMA to come in & offer federal assistance in smany cases.

The Red Cross, Salvation Army & the Lewis County United Way all moved in & provided assistance where possible.  Churches & Fraternal organizations reached out with as much help as they could muster, which usually came in the form of bodies to help with the clean-up.   Local businesses that were not hit, even offered their employees, (while still on the payroll) to help out.


Shown below is the area this river drains.
River height gage for the flooding period.   See how fast it went UP in 2 days.

Below is a picture gallery.  Photos shown are just a sampling of the destruction.  Click on the thumbnails for larger photos.
About 1/2 of these pictures I have personally taken, while others were snatched off blogs or DOT & other websites.

Pe Ell Hiway 6 mudslide Chandler Rd bridge gone Rainbow Falls bridges gone Meskil bridge gone Bunker railroad bridge gone Lost Valley Rd log jam The rest of the Lost Valley story
I-5 with Green Hill school on right I-5 exit 77 looking south I-5 exit 79 looking north I-5 exit 81 looking south Chehalis airport the next morning Mellon Street (exit 81) Governors chariot
Hiway 603 at Hillcrest Another of Hiway 603 at Hillcrest Hiway 6 blacktop lifted up Hay for sale sign 6hrs before crest Hay for sale sign the next day Seattle, 86 miles at exit 79 Rainbow Falls looks somewhat peaceful 2 days later
IMG_2094.JPG IMG_2098.JPG IMG_2124.JPG
West Coast Mills in Chehalis Odd place for a roof Most of their possessions sit in yard at Adna Ruined camper off Bunker Creek Rd Littell looking toward Adna Hiway 6 at Littell, you can't get there from here  Chehalis City's poplar tree farm entrance
Local nursery greenhouse down This one survived with 58" of water in it WOW The force went by here They went that way Toppled fruit trees Brush/debris line across field
A mess in the kitchen Another load hauled away Goodbye old friends Muck everywhere Cleaned & salvage personal items Erosion & path of water Garbage collection site at Adna's Back park parking lot
Stalled cars & road damage west of Adna Look what appears as the water does down Hiway 6 near Schuber Rd Got to get there to help Entering Adna  Dead cow Dead deer
IMG_2153.JPG DSC01003  
Uhlman Motors from exit 79 overpass Sunbirds Shopping Center A bad dream at Adna river bank John Alexander's west of Chehalis Fed Ex parking lot State Street Chilvers rd & Hiway 6    
CIMG0898 got milk? CIMG0899        
Safeway's shelves the next day Got Milk? Bare shelves        

Many volunteers, friends, neighbors & strangers have showed up to help clean up in about all instances.   Many totally unknown persons from out of the area showed up & offered to help, then spent a whole or even many days helping.

There are many stories that will be told for years to come.   Some of very brave people saving others.  Other stories of destruction that would never be believed without actually being there or driving thru the destruction or without pictures to be shown.

Could it have been prevented?  This will probably be hashed & rehashed for many years with finger pointing but nothing really being done.  The early warning system needs to be addressed very carefully.  One authority needs to pick the ball up & run with it.  Fragmentation & lack of one central command center appears to be the downfall

The first thought when you see all this damage is "am I in a bad dream" with all the previous hard work just evaporate into thin air, is to sit down & cry.  Then reality sets in & these hardy people knuckle down & do what has to be done.  Their body is functioning on instinct & their energy is running on fumes.  One older lady that was stranded for days near Pe Ell said "I know God won't give me any more than I can handle, but I just wish he did not trust me so much".

This year Christmas for many families may be bleak.  However everyone is thankful no lives were lost. Well not really, as one man in Winlock has not been found & suspected being washed away, another died of a heart attach & there was one suicide.   Monetary things can be replaced, but human lives can not.  Life is a precious commodity.

How is this related to fish survival?  Well not good, as the Chinook salmon spawn in the main rivers from October thru November, & not the smaller tributaries.   With all of this fast flowing water & then sediment, any eggs that may have survived will be smothered & die.  Another total wipe out of that years Chinook salmon run.   The Coho on the other hand spawn in the tributaries & near the headwaters at that, from late November into January, so they have a better survival rate.


Originated 12-10-07, Last updated 12-14-07
LeeRoy Wisner