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Record rainfall and flooding sweeps Whatcom County

City officials urge residents to stay safe and avoid driving during this time; campus remains open — for now

Two cars sit abandoned and submerged several feet deep in a parking lot in Fairhaven at noon on Nov 15. The cars were also submerged from rainfall the night before. // Photo by Kai Uyehara

Nov. 18, 11:47 a.m. UPDATE: Gov. Jay Inslee visited Whatcom County to discuss the flood damage. Read our full coverage here.

Nov. 17, 4:00 p.m. UPDATE: Gov. Jay Inslee is visiting Whatcom County and holding a press conference at the Whatcom Transportation Authority Station in Ferndale. Watch the video here.

Nov. 15, 6:41 p.m. UPDATE: Approximately 500 people have been displaced due to flooding in the north/northeast area of Whatcom County, the Public Works Department announced Monday evening. Of those 500, approximately 280 have moved to one of three shelters located at Everson Elementary School, Nooksack Elementary School and North County Christ the King Church in Lynden.


Nov. 15, 3:51 p.m. Heavy rainfall and strong gales plague Bellingham and surrounding cities, forcing road and school closures as multiple areas suffer flooding around the county. Western’s campus remained open but may close tomorrow depending on conditions.

Sumas, in northern Whatcom County, is experiencing major flooding in its downtown with ongoing water rescue operations and residents sheltering.

On Sunday Nov. 14, the National Weather Service issued a “Gale Warning” for northern inland waters such as Bellingham Bay, the San Juan Islands and Admiralty Inlet until 7 p.m. this evening.

Rainfall and windy conditions have reached record heights with southwest winds reaching 35-45 knots (40-50mph). According to Eric Johnston, public works director for Whatcom County, Bellingham received 4.5 inches of rainwater that cannot be absorbed by the land and creeks within the last 36 hours.

At 2:29 p.m., the National Weather Service Seattle tweeted that winds have likely peaked and will gradually decrease tonight through Tuesday morning. 

Many local waterways such as Whatcom Creek and Squalicum Creek have swollen with rainwater and are overflowing onto the banks. 

City crews have been mitigating damage inflicted due to the extreme weather conditions, barricading flooded streets, clearing debris from storm drains, sewer services, lake and stream water levels and removing fallen trees from parks, trails and roadways.

According to a press release by Janice Keller, communications director for the City of Bellingham, due to the magnitude of the weather emergency and the volume of calls they’re getting, the city won’t be able to respond to individual concerns about flooding.

Campus

Western Washington University remained open on Monday, though some professors chose to cancel classes or move them online. In a Western Alert, the school said community members unable to attend should communicate with faculty about adjustments to deadlines or exemptions. The school advised people to avoid walking through the arboretum or under trees on Western’s campus.

Flooding hit some Western students harder than others, sometimes making staying at home an impossibility. 

Christian Clarke, a student at Western living at Viking View apartments on south campus, had his unit flooded in about an inch of water.

Around 4 p.m. on Nov. 14, the water began flowing into Clarke’s apartment starting from the back door as several inches of water pooled on his back deck, before creeping in from the front door and then seeping in from the walls. 

Clarke and his roommates await a team of plumbers while all of their belongings sit atop couches, beds, desks and tables.

PTLA, the company that owns Viking View, has provided Clarke and his roommates with a hotel for the night of Nov. 15 after they stayed at a friend’s house the night before.

In a second Western Alert sent at 3:10 p.m., the school announced that supervisors and faculty members should be flexible about letting students and employees navigate the commute home. 

“The university advises faculty members to balance concern for student learning and accountability with concern for student safety,” the alert said. 

haggen parking lot.jpg
Waves ripple through a pool in the Sehome Haggen’s parking lot as a car plows through at noon Nov 15 // photo by Kai Uyehara

It is not yet clear if Western’s campus will be fully operational tomorrow. Western is planning to send an alert at 6 a.m. on Tuesday with information about the university’s operational status. 

“Students, faculty and staff who are unable to get to Western because of weather conditions may decide to remain home," the alert said. "Each decision is a personal one and should be made according to individual judgment.”

Impact and mitigation

Bellingham’s control dams have been fully opened as water levels in Lake Whatcom and connected bodies of water continue to rise and overflow.

In addition to the flooding, Interstate 5 suffers from ongoing blockages due to mudslides and downed trees at MilePost 245. The National Weather Service issued a “Special Weather Statement,” telling residents of western Washington that continued heavy rainfall and strong gales will cause an elevated threat of landslides. 

Around 2 p.m, the Whatcom County Health Department announced that the COVID-19 testing site at Bellingham International Airport was closed after testing equipment was damaged by the extreme weather.


City officials are urging residents to take necessary precautions to stay safe during this time. Drivers are urged to avoid unnecessary trips, to obey road closures and barricades, avoid flooded areas even if they are not barricaded as well as wooded areas in case of falling trees and branches.

Driving past a road-closed sign carries a $500 fine, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office announced on Sunday evening. The department declared a proclamation of emergency to expedite the response by County agencies. 

Residents are also advised to avoid nearing overflowing streams as the currents from these rushing waters can be very strong. Sandbags for water mitigation in your homes are available at hardware and construction supply stores, and sand can be purchased at gravel supply companies.


Kai Uyehara

Kai is a senior at Western and has decided to finish his undergrad journey with News/Editorial Journalism. His focus is on social issues and is committed to the people within these stories.


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