In Washington, floods are sometimes fought with fire

Watching firefighters-in-training take down a house in the Puyallup floodway: A controversial FEMA flood control program scorns levees in favor of demolition.

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Fighting water with fire near the banks of the Puyallup

Watching firefighters-in-training take down a house in the Puyallup floodway: A controversial FEMA flood control program scorns levees in favor of demolition.

On a blue and gold Saturday I rode with my friend past pumpkin fields and acres of blueberry farms, where the leaves of the blueberry bushes were turning brilliant red. We were headed toward a rural Pierce County road where firefighters planned to conduct a training burn.

The combustible of the day — besides the vibrant blueberry foliage — was a house near the Puyallup River. Over the years FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the county have been systematically buying and demolishing certain homes because the rivers draining Mount Rainier flood them with such expensive regularity. This one had been set aside for firefighters to use in a training exercise.

A neighbor watching the burn told me that almost as soon as the homeowners had moved out of the house and the perimeter was posted with No Trespassing signs, looters moved in to rip copper pipes and wiring out of the walls. He had walked over to find a twitchy couple crowbarring through the sheetrock and filling boxes with scavenged metal. When he told them to leave, the young man snarled, “Can’t people let a guy work?  

Later, firefighters removed toxics like vinyl and PVC from the structure in anticipation of delivering it to the air in smoky particulates. By 10 a.m. on the Saturday in question they had chopped down surrounding shrubbery and stuffed the branches through the side windows stump ends first, to fuel the coming inferno. Green leaves draped the sills like the garlands on the heifer being led to the sacrifice in Keats’ poem. 

Buying out homeowners is cheaper than repeatedly rescuing them from floods and repairing damage to the infrastructure that serves their properties, says the prevailing wisdom these days. You'd think floodplain residents would gratefully accept governmental efforts to give them a financial pathway out of their damp difficulties.

But many refuse to participate in the program, and it's not just that owners sometimes think the market value of their property is higher than government assessors have calculated.

The “conquer-this, control-that, overcome-all-obstacles” way of thinking about the environment dies hard. The faith that natural forces can be subdued through engineering and technology doesn't yield easily to a belief in the value of achieving a better balance in the interactions of all parts of nature, including us human parts. This is especially the case if the balance depends on our giving up something we feel entitled to.

Some residents argue that levees to straighten, constrict, and contain rivers should be built or maintained as they have been in Washington state since the early 20th century. Yet sediment riding down from the mountain raises riverbed levels increasingly higher, making levees prohibitively expensive and often futile. Moreover, because narrow channels increase the water's force, levees along one reach of a river intensify problems for communities farther downstream. And when a levee fails, a minor flood becomes a catastrophe.

Other floodplain residents resent the fact that dredging the riverbed, which used to protect their properties by lowering the height of the water surface in flood season, is now illegal because it ruins fish habitat. "Are fish more important than people?" they ask — forgetting that people are fed by fish, both directly and through the contribution salmon make to the regional economy. Their presence in the waterways offers spiritual nourishment, too.

Finally, citizens living outside the flood plain wonder why public dollars should be used to compensate people who chose to live in a danger zone.

The fact is that all of Washington's citizens have already been paying to rescue homeowners and repair infrastructure serving buildings damaged by increased flooding over the past couple of decades. Floodwaters wrecked populated areas of Washington in 1996, 2006, 2007, and 2009. During January 2009 alone, 23 floods occurred in the Puget Sound region, four of them breaking historical records of severity. In King County, eight rivers including the Snoqualmie, Tolt, Cedar, White, and Green are on the watch list, and 11 flood disasters have occurred since 1990.

To minimize property damage as well as reduce environmental degradation and restore wildlife habitat, King and Pierce counties now have robust floodplain management plans. The FEMA buyout program that is part of those plans breaks the wasteful cycle in which flood disasters demand expensive rescues of property owners, sometimes by helicopter, followed by the rebuilding of structures and infrastructure that will only flood again and again and require rebuilding each time.

The agency has invested more than $40 million in making one-time buyouts of repeatedly inundated properties in Washington between 1993 and 2010. FEMA covers 75 percent of a property’s value as determined by agency assessors; state and local governments split the remaining balance.

To property owners, the buyout process can seem Byzantine in its intricacies, delays, and periodic shortages of Congressional funding due to sometimes arcane political dickering. The process can also seem unfair as it unfolds. A resident down the street from the house being prepped for burning said, "We spent our own money to elevate our house. FEMA says it's less vulnerable to damage now, and they put us last on the list. With all our neighbors being bought out, why should we be the only ones left?" Other homeowners, even those who view a buyout as a rescue from serious threats, can be reluctant to leave the place where their kids grew up, where every nook and niche holds memories of a family’s life.

But we know far more about river behavior today than we did in the past, and one fact is that rivers can’t be prevented from flooding. Channels migrate hundreds of yards from side to side. The power of the water moves enormous stumps and boulders into piles that radically redirect the flow. Rivers, in short, carve their own stubborn, changing courses through the landscape.

Along those unpredictable courses, buyouts return frequently flooded properties to as natural a state as possible. FEMA requires bought-out buildings to be demolished and debris to be carted away (the recycling of building materials can sometimes partially defray costs). The spaces become public lands, forever closed to development or the building of permanent structures of any kind: new fields for summer picnickers and porcupines. 

The river then has more room to meander the way it did in the past, before engineers tried to confine it in an artificially straightened, narrowed channel. So the buyout process offers long-term benefits to property owners, Washington taxpayers, wildlife, plant life, water quality, and citizens of the future.

Still, it sometimes feels like a sacrifice in the short term. The former owners of the home that went up in flames that Saturday didn't come to watch.

The sacrificial house stood at the end of a street of houseless yards gone to seed. Tall grasses bordered the roadside, and unpruned apple trees were heavy with unpicked fruit. The apples were redder than the fires the men in helmets were setting, then quenching, setting, then quenching, and finally setting throughout the house before standing back to watch the immolation.


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