Nobody's building an ark yet, but 20,000 people in South King County may be displaced if the Green River floods this winter, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wrote the state's property insurers last Friday. And what people don't know may hurt them: “Many insurance consumers mistakenly believe that homeowners insurance covers flooding,” Kreidler said. “Recognizing this, the 2009 Legislature passed a law requiring insurers to annually remind their homeowners insurance customers that their policy doesn’t cover flooding, and to provide information on the National Flood Insurance Program.” However, he noted, "flood insurance doesn’t become effective until 30 days after a policy is written, and the flood season begins on Nov. 1. ... I ask that you take extraordinary measures to contact all of your customers in the Green River floodplain and suggest that, if they haven’t done so already, they contact the National Flood Insurance Program immediately to purchase flood insurance.”
Getting flood insurance through the private sector may be just about impossible. Craig Welch reported in Tuesday's Seattle Times about a Seattle insurance insurance broker who received notice a couple of weeks ago, “on the same day that Gov. Chris Gregoire urged homeowners and businesses along the Green River to buy flood insurance," that his broker at Lloyd's of London was concerned about Green River flooding. "Within a week," the Times story said, "the worldwide market for private flood insurance in and around Kent, Auburn and Tukwila had dried up. ... By advertising the risks of flooding to protect the safety of area residents, public officials effectively helped kill one of the insurance markets they encouraged citizens to turn to.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Howard Hanson Dam, doesn't worry — or claims not to worry — that the dam will fail, but in order to reduce pressure on the structure, the Corps won't hold back as much water this winter as it usually would. This means that under flood conditions, the Green River may overtop its levees and inundate a good deal of its historic floodplain, which has been heavily developed since the dam started controlling the river on Christmas 1961.
The City of Auburn's website advises “renters, homeowners, and businesses ... to review their insurance policies to ensure they are covered for flooding, landslides, sinkholes, and other issues commonly associated with significant rain events.” Lots of luck.
And Auburn isn't alone. “Kent, Renton, Auburn, Tukwila and King County are urging thousands of residents and businesses to buy flood insurance and prepare for possible evacuation this winter,” Keith Ervin reported in the Seattle Times. “County Executive Kurt Triplett said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has suggested that local authorities plan not just for a possible overtopping of the levees but also for the more serious possibility they will be breached. In that event, he said, 'You're talking about water that's rocketing down the valley at the highest levels you've ever seen.'”
County government is among the many property owners checking their life preservers. Last month, the County Council was briefed on plans to shift the operation of major county facilities from the heart of the flood plain, “including the potential need to relocate animals from the Animal Shelter, inmates from the Maleng Regional Justice Center, and move the County’s Elections headquarters," according to a presentation by Assistant County Executive Pam Bissonette.
She presented projected high-water marks for several of those facilities:
- Aukeen District Court — up to a foot
- Animal Care and Control Shelter in Kent — up to 3 feet
- Maleng Regional Justice Center — up to 4 feet
- Black River Building — up to 7 feet
- Earlington Center (King County Elections) — up to 10 feet.
The Times quoted Bissonette saying FEMA has estimated the potential property damages to homes and businesses in the floodplain at $2 billion to $3 billion.
Inevitably, the situation has been politicized. “We are facing an economic and environmental disaster that could result in billions of dollars in losses,” King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison said in a press release. “This is not a pastoral region where flooding means cows can’t graze for a few weeks. This flooding could shut down the second largest warehouse and distribution center on the West Coast.
And guess where she laid the blame. “The levies have been deteriorating for years but it is well documented that when Council members tried to establish the critical Flood District tax to raise funds for levy repairs, Council Chair Dow Constantine used it as a bargaining chip to get his unnecessary and costly Ferry District tax. This politicizing of such an important safety and economic need is one of the reasons the county faces this crisis today.”
Well, no. But Hutchison is right about one thing: Flooding would affect much more than cows. The Howard Hanson Dam provides a classic example of the way government has subsidized construction in floodplains. Build it and they will come. The Green, like other rivers flowing into Puget Sound, tended to spend a lot of time outside its banks. Before the dam, for the first century or so of non-native settlement, the valley was agricultural. Flooding was an annoyance to the people who farmed there, and it discouraged most land uses except agriculture. But it wasn't all bad. “Annual floods of the Green and White rivers contributed to the agricultural fertility of the Kent valley,” the Kent city website explains. However, then “the Howard Hanson Dam was completed at Eagle Gorge on the upper Green River, taming most of the flooding. This enabled industrial development to take place on the valley floor, leading to Kent's rapid rise as a major distribution center.”
To borrow a phrase from the banking crisis, the valley has become too big to fail. “The construction of the dam by the federal government ... allowed the extensive commercial development of the Kent Valley,” Phillips said last month, concluding that therefore, “We need the federal government to step up in not only acting to protect public safety and property, but to put a permanent fix in place immediately.”
Somebody will have to step in. No one suggests we should just sit back and let floodwaters sweep away the house and family dog, to say nothing of the kids. We'll try to protect those people, whether they should have built there or not.
And arguably, they shouldn't have. Everyone who has given any serious thought to saving the salmon or the Sound realizes that floodplains are crucial. The Puget Sound Partnership's Action Agenda makes a point of this. University of Washington geologist David Montgomery, author of King of Fish, argues that the floodplains were historically and could still be the region's great salmon factories. And, because many of them remain relatively undeveloped, they offer an opportunity to save habitat — not exactly on the cheap, but more cost-effectively than, say, trying to unring the bell of urbanization in metropolitan Seattle or Tacoma. Montgomery argues for buying up lightly developed areas in the floodplains, and letting the rivers flood them again as nature intended. We could create a network of productive habitat and public open space. We could stop subsidizing the destruction of habitat.
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