Flood waters from the Chehalis River inundate Southwest Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007, in Chehalis, Wash. (AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Steve Ringman)

Communications, Training, Response Plans Have Improved Since 2007 Flood, Leaders Say

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

Steve Mansfield, who during the 2007 flood was Lewis County sheriff, said he’ll never forget the images of families digging through mud and debris-filled homes, drowned farm animals and people using portable showers and toilets in the Twin Cities in the aftermath of one of the worst flood events in the county’s history. 

“In some sense it goes on forever through the generations,” he said of flood recovery efforts. “It will always be part of this community.”

However, he also remembers Lewis County citizens coming together to selflessly help each other. 

“It’s nothing you could script,” he said. 

Mansfield, now the county’s emergency services director in charge of 911 communications and the Department of Emergency Management, said Lewis County has learned from devastating floods a decade ago and is more prepared for the next one. 

“This is really about, bad things are going to happen — you can’t stop them, but how resilient is the community?” he said. 

Mansfield noted that the 2007 flood — with its images of a flooded and impassable Interstate 5 — sticks out in most residents’ memories, but said floods in 2006 and 2009 also hit the county hard, as well as floods in decades past. 

“We’ve learned from every single one of them and I think that’s the takeaway,” he said. “When you start looking at what went wrong, it’s always coming back to communications.”

Some of the county’s greatest strides since 2007 are in improved communication and technology, Mansfield said. In particular, the Lewis County Alert program allows the county to communicate with residents through a number of channels. 

“If you’re signed up on that … and you give me your number, you can get that by text, you can get that by email …  you can get in on the app,” Mansfield said. “That technology I’m really excited about. Being able to communicate with people in any sort of emergency or disaster has always been a major challenge.”

County agencies have also done training to practice using the emergency operations center, a hub for leadership in a flood or disaster situation, and do “tabletop” exercises to prepare to respond in emergencies, Sheriff Rob Snaza said. 

In addition, the Sheriff’s Office has joined other area emergency responders in increasing their swift-water training for water rescues, he said. 

“We’ve doubled our swift-water teams, we’ve got extra equipment,” Snaza said. “We do quarterly training throughout the year.”

The sheriff’s office has also pursued the purchase of military-style vehicles to facilitate rescues when roads are impassable, he said. 

“2007 was an anomaly and it hit us really hard,” Snaza said. 

Logs and debris from hillsides in the Pe Ell area flooded the Chehalis River, taking out bridges and exacerbating flooding along state Route 6 and into the more densely populated areas of Chehalis and Centralia. 

“I don’t know if we were ready for what happened,” he said. “We had never had the flooding in the Pe Ell area the way it happened.”

Lewis County’s river gauge system has also seen recent improvements to more accurately warn residents of rising floodwaters. 

The Chehalis Basin Flood Authority recently replaced gauges in two locations in Centralia and 10 new gauges have been installed since 2007 said Ron Averill, a county commissioner during the 2007 flood and a member of the flood authority. 

He said improved radar on the coast in Grays Harbor County has also helped first responders more accurately predict flood events in the Chehalis Basin.

“We’re getting almost a week’s preview of what’s headed toward our way,” he said. 

In addition to planning by Lewis County agencies, Mansfield said residents should focus on preparing themselves for a disaster. 

“The only thing you can prepare, as an individual, is to be prepared to take care of yourself and family for two weeks without any intervention from government or state resources,” he said. “I can’t overstate the importance of being prepared as an individual.”

Mansfield said many people hear the message that they should take steps to prepare themselves, but few heed it. 

“My job right now is to get people to do it, make them understand it takes very little,” he said. 

At the very least, individuals should have a “go pack” containing basics like food, shelter, a jacket, a toothbrush, soap and emergency information. 

“Invest now. It’s fun to do it, it’s not expensive,” Mansfield said. 

However, most cautioned that there’s only so much that planning can accomplish — each individual flood event is unique. 

“When we think we’re there, God sends us another flood to say we’re not, “Mansfield said. 

While it’s impossible to predict the next major flood, emergency responders are already planning. 

“You can never let your guard down when it comes to the weather here,” Snaza said. 

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