In its timber heyday Hamilton, founded in 1891, boasted a population of 2,500. A town of about 350 now, it nestles on the banks of the Skagit River about 80 miles north of Seattle. It also half-drowns in the Skagit when the river rises.
The town has flooded more than 17 times in the last century, and now, every three years or so, the river covers the entire town up to nine feet deep. Residents view the floods as part of their way of life. Even after the destruction wrought by Skagit waters in 1990, 1995, 1996, 2003, and 2007, many townspeople see no need for change.
This is partly because Hamilton residents have been supported in rebuilding every time with FEMA money. FEMA estimates it has spent over $10 million in the last 20 years on Hamilton. Some other estimates of total payouts to residents rise to more than $20 million. At the same time, property values have declined dramatically, attracting impoverished newcomers in search of inexpensive housing.
Beyond the huge sums of taxpayer dollars sent to residents in response to repeated claims for damages, flood pollution from the town threatens the Skagit River Delta. This watershed is home to one of Washington state’s largest wintering colonies of bald eagles and is the spawning site for six species of salmon.
Politicians pledge during each crisis to find a solution, but political will and leadership seem to recede with the floodwaters. A three-decade effort to move the town to higher ground stalled again in 2008, a casualty of the economic meltdown. Now climate change and the predicted El Niña winter make the chances very high of a massive flood in the coming months.
My documentary film “Town at the Tipping Point” examines reasons why Hamilton's people insist on living in the floodway, the consequences of their choices, and how the town as well as the delta watershed might be saved.
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