State, feds promise quick response if Green River valley is flooded this winter

  • BY Wire Service
  • Wednesday, September 16, 2009 6:19pm
  • News

State and federal representatives promised a rapid flood-emergency response Wednesday they briefed members of a Metropolitan King County Council committee on preparations already under way in advance of the potential release of water from the storm-damaged, federally owned Howard Hanson Dam that could inundate the Green River Valley.

Jim Mullen, director of the state Emergency Management Division, told members of the Committee of the Whole that his agency and the state’s Military Department are already offering training and preparedness workshops to threatened communities, as well as preparing shelter and mitigation plans.

Mullen said the state’s assistance involves several state agencies, from the Department of Transportation’s preparation of evacuation routes and search and rescue plans to the Department of Social and Health Services arrangement of assistance for those with special needs who are displaced by flooding. Other state agencies involved range from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Health to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which would assist in identifying personnel and equipment for swift water rescue.

“I am concerned that the state has not identified what gaps exist in flood preparations for this region,” said Councilmember Bob Ferguson, chair of the Council’s Committee of the Whole. “They have assured us that these gaps will be identified shortly and I look forward to receiving their report.”

“Flooding in south King County could impact transportation corridors throughout the Puget Sound region,” said Councilmember Julia Patterson. “Evacuating thousands of people from the Green River Valley, along with shifting transportations routes for those who depend on State Route 167 every day, will push I-5 to the limit. We must take every step necessary to ensure people can safely evacuate the Valley.”

Emergency officials acknowledged that while they will assist the county in several aspects of flood preparation, King County will have the primary responsibility for setting up shelters for displaced residents.

Lon Biasco, Division X Director of Disaster Operations for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the committee that FEMA is not a first responder, but rather an agency that supports and coordinates federal response through state officials who come to FEMA with specific needs. For example, he said FEMA is now assisting with locating generators to keep the County’s South Treatment Plant operating to process wastewater in the event of a flood-related power failure.

“As we prepare for the real possibility that communities will need to be evacuated, it is vital that the agencies responsible for responding all be on the same page,” said Councilmember Larry Gossett. “Today's briefing is reassuring in the fact that local, county, state and federal agencies are already preparing plans for something we all hope won't be needed.”

Mark Carey, FEMA’s Mitigation Division Director for Division X, praised King County for being rated by his agency as the second most-prepared community in the nation in the ability to manage flood risk — from early warning to flood fighting to levee maintenance. He said FEMA’s mitigation responsibility locally will be to:

· Analyze risk: Carey told members that according to their scenarios, the potential property and economic loss from major flooding in the Green River Valley could go as high as $4 billion.

· Reduce risk: The agency has been providing technical assistance and is prepared to provide financial assistance where needed, primarily through grants which would be administered and prioritized by the state. Carey said up to $14 million would be available to assist with mitigation.

· Insure for risk: FEMA administers the national flood insurance program, and Carey said it is committed to helping raise the amount of flood insurance purchased by Green River Valley residents.

“Coordinated emergency preparedness efforts for potential flooding from the Howard Hanson Dam are under way and will protect lives if flooding occurs,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips. “But these emergency preparations don’t let the federal government off the hook from doing everything possible to speed up a permanent repair to the dam so that people and property in the flood zone are properly protected.”

“It’s impossible to predict whether the floodwaters will come, but the county and the Green River Valley cities will continue to work with state and federal agencies to be ready for all possibilities,” said Council Chair Dow Constantine. “No matter what the future holds, we will do our best to be prepared.”

Both state and federal officials stressed that preparation is the best weapon in advance of floods, and encouraged community outreach efforts on the preparation of evacuation kits, discussion of where to go in case of flooding, and the purchase of flood insurance.

The Army Corps of Engineers discovered the problem with the earthen abutment next to the dam after January’s record rain. According to the Army Corps a temporary fix to inject grout into the earthen material to control seepage is underway but dam storage capacity will be limited until the repair can be tested next spring. A long-term fix could take the federal government three to five years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The King County Council Committee of the Whole will hear further briefs regarding the threat of Green River flooding in the near future. The County is hosting a series of public meetings regarding the Howard Hanson Dam and flood threats. For information about the meetings, go to:

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