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What killed Kate Fleming?

The Madison Valley flood.

The Madison Valley flood of Dec. 14, 2006. (CH2M Hill)

Seattle Public Utilities just released a $250,000 study by the engineering firm CH2M Hill to determine what caused the flooding in the Madison Valley neighborhood that killed audio producer Kate Fleming. Fleming was trapped in the basement of her home by floodwaters and drowned before rescuers could save her. Her story became one of the central tragedies of the Hanukkah Eve Storm that drenched and wind-lashed the region on December 14, 2006. I went to the press conference held at The Bush School in Madison Valley this afternoon. Department officials, including director Chuck Clarke, and CH2M Hill engineer John Rogers, who authored the report, were there to present their findings with a PowerPoint presentation. They answered media questions and later took reporters on a tour of Madison Valley sites relevant to their study. (Full dislosure: Andy Ryan, SPU’s spokesman, is an old friend and media colleague who used to freelance for Seattle Weekly when I was editor there.) It was a strange exercise – a little bit CSI, a little bit reverse engineering. The goal was to work back from a terrible event and try and determine what happened using engineering, physics, and meteorology. Knowing the tragic outcome, every step on the path that brought things to that moment seem laden with meaning, in hindsight. The report almost makes it sound as if fate had drawn a big target on Kate Fleming’s house, and she was standing at the bullseye of a demonstration of both nature’s power and human folly. First, human folly. Madison Valley – in particular, the end of it, where Kate Fleming lived, at 30th Avenue East and East Mercer Street – is part of the old flood zone of a creek system that used to run through the valley and down through the Arboretum to Lake Washington. Part of the creek is still visible today, but for the most part it is gone. East Madison Street divides that once natural little valley. It used to run on a trestle, but later the trestle was replace with a wall of dirt on which Madison now runs. That earthen “dam” effectively killed the creek. On one side is the Washington Park playfield, on the other what the engineers now refer to as the “Mercer Bowl,” a charming, pea-patched cul de sac where Fleming’s house occupied the lowest point. So while you look at the surrounding neighborhood today as something quite unremarkable, it is in fact geographically and topographically unusual. Given that water likes to run downhill, flooding and sewer backups have been a problem in this enclave that was once largely African American. If you’re looking for a New Orleans or a Katrina parallel, there it is: This area is not necessarily the best place to build a home and because of that, most of the people with money and means live on the surrounding hills while Madison Valley became a low-income extension of the Central District, albeit one that is now gentrifying. Seattle development is full of such places: our forefathers imagined grids everywhere and altered the land to suit their needs, often without thinking of long-term environmental impacts (the lowering of Lake Washington, the washing away of Denny Hill). For most people, Madison Valley looks like and is a charming neighborhood, and “the bowl” a delightfully tucked away part of it. In fact, it’s the result of some pretty poor planning that happened long before Kate Fleming was born. But from this perspective, what happened seems almost inevitable: someone living in a bowl is going to get wet, right? The stormwater, drainage, and sewer systems there have been the cause of great community complaint. They are clearly inadequate, built to standards that may no longer be good enough. They certainly weren’t good enough for the Dec. 14 storm. And that brings us to nature’s power. The rain systems that came in with the Hanukkah Eve storm were unpredicted and unprecedented. The report says it was worse than the “100-year” magnitude storm of August 2004. There are three ways its impact was felt. One is that a huge amount of rain fell in intense bursts in a very short period of time. There are three rain gauges surrounding Madison Valley that provide data every minute – a pretty accurate picture of what happened could be put together. Between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. that day, rain was falling on the Madison Valley area at a rate of 3 inches to 3.5 inches per hour. According to CH2M Hill engineer Rogers, enough water to cover Safeco Field to a depth of 10 feet came streaming off the surrounding hillsides. Call it a once-in-150-years storm. A deluge. A rare event. The runoff was exacerbated because the storm drains became plugged with debris, and water began flying down the paved streets at high speed. Worse, because the ground was already saturated from previous rain, none of the runoff could sink in. I was on East Madison at the peak of the storm. I’ve lived in the Seattle area for more than 50 years and have never seen anything like the runoff that evening. The report includes a map that shows the rain activity over Seattle during the storm. The heaviest rains fell in a diagonal line running from the Duwamish River, across central Seattle to Sand Point. One of the rainiest spots is right in the middle: Madison Valley. The water cascaded down Madison Street into the Madison Valley business district, creating a lake from Martin Luther King Way to Lake Washington Boulevard – in other words, on top of the “dam” separating the Mercer bowl and the Arboretum. With the drains overwhelmed, it poured alongside an apartment building near City People’s garden store, dislodged and turned a garden shed from its foundation, collected into another pool, then overflowed again through a series of backyard terraces into the bowl. The force was so great, a 60-foot section of a 100-foot retaining wall on private property failed. As the water flowed, mud and debris from the landslide clogged the street drains in the bowl. The water sought the lowest ground, and that happened to be Kate Fleming’s basement. Outside near the pea patch, the water pooled to a depth of about four feet. A home adjacent to Fleming’s was a few feet higher and was untouched. As floods go, it was small. As damage goes, the worst seemed to be targeted with tragic specificity. One person in the wrong place at the wrong time. At least that’s how it seems in retrospect when the enigineers tell it. SPU’s Clarke says the city does not want to duck responsibility. It’s clear that the area’s drainage systems were overwhelmed and that city drains were clogged. In addition to settling claims – though way too slowly for many of the valley residents – the city also has the responsibility of making sure such a thing never happens again. Clarke says they are studying various options and that the price tag for a fix is likely to between between $30 million and $100 million. I asked Clarke if one option would be to remove the artificial barrier created underneath East Madison and reconnect the two halves of the valley, perhaps even restoring the creek. That at least would let nature augment the manmade runoff systems. He said it is one of the options they’re considering. He also said that SPU was thinking about holding a conference to answer the question: What standard should such systems be built to? The old standard of being built to withstand a 25-year storm is inadequate, especially in the era of global warming. Some climate models predict we will have more intense storms and rain bursts in the future. He said they are consulting the weather people at the University of Washington on how to plan for and predict what lies ahead. Another sleeping giant of a problem lies with private property owners. Walk around the city and you’ll see plenty of cracked, leaning, or bulging old retaining walls. The report suggests that Kate Fleming might not have drowned had the nearby retaining wall not collapsed. In answer to media questions, it was admitted that, other than specific complaints to the city’s Department of Planning and Development, they have no one out checking for or inspecting potential problems on private property. Needless to say, the retaining wall property owner reportedly has a lawyer who is talking with the city. They are not alone. In the wake of death, damage, insurance claims, and questions about liability, there are a number of people in Madison Valley with lawyers these days. Here’s the full investigation report.

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