By Jordan Nailon / email@example.com
Editor’s Note: Through the month of December, The Chronicle will revisit some of the people and places impacted by the 2007 floods in the Chehalis River Basin.
ADNA — When the Gregory family finally left their home in the midst of the Chehalis River flood of 2007, they had already moved their coffee pot and a few snacks to the second story in order to spend the night perched above the floodwaters. But when a speed boat pulled up to their front porch and rescuers waded into their home, they quickly realized it was time to go and gratefully accepted the ride out of harm’s way.
On that early December day, rescuers aboard a speed boat ferried the family, including Brad and Meg Gregory and their two young children, to Adna Grocery near the arched state Route 6 bridge. Eventually, a helicopter evacuated them the rest of the way to the old school grounds up on Dieckman Hill where relief efforts were being coordinated.
The house took on at least 30 inches of water during the flood, and a jiggling 6-inch coat of gelatinous mud slop covered every surface as far as the eye could see. Inside the historic old barn, erected in the 1890s and still standing strong, the scene was even more horrific.
The rising river had actually forced the Gregory family to move their flock of dairy sheep twice. Around 8 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2007, they realized that the flood was going to be more serious than the typical “boring flood” as both Bunker Creek and the Chehalis River started outrunning their banks.
With 100 sheep milling about in the pasture, the family moved the flock to the loafing shed, but as soon as they had the sheep under cover, the water began to cover their hooves. Heading for higher ground, the family again moved the flock, this time to the old barn with its strong wood main floor raised a good 3 feet above ground.
By the time the river had stopped rising, though, it had left a high water mark roughly 6 feet above ground level that can still be seen on the road side of the old barn. That unrelenting torrent of log-choked water claimed the lives of 75 of the family’s 100 sheep, including all six of their breeding rams.
“I’m surprised any of them survived. I don’t know how they did,” said Brad Gregory on Friday, just a few days short of the somber 10-year anniversary of that fateful day.
The loss of livestock was not unique to Black Sheep Creamery by any means. Official estimates from after the water receded placed the total number of livestock killed by the flood between 1,200 and 1,600 animals. The cow dairy industry was impacted the most severely with young stock suffering the greatest losses. On the whole, the economic damage of the 2007 Chehalis River flood was expected to be at least twice as severe as the losses inflicted by the flood of 1996.
Brad and Meg Gregory bought their farm along the north bank of the Chehalis River in 1993. Brad Gregory noted that during the flood of 1996, the water barely reached underneath the house, and most of the farm’s various barns and machine sheds were left high and dry.
“1996 was as high as the water had ever been as far as we knew. So we weren’t really panicking yet,” he explained.
While the losses from the 2007 flood were staggering and the cleanup seemingly insurmountable, the family never considered giving up farming or leaving the Chehalis River valley.
“We felt that particular flood was more of a one time event,” explained Brad Gregory. “We just got right into cleanup mode and we didn’t think about it again until it was lambing season again.”
Gregory noted that his family, like so many others affected by the flood, wound up the beneficiary of countless charitable acts from friends and neighbors in the aftermath.
“One of our neighbors from Deep Creek Road said they had room at their place and took (our sheep) up to their place and ended up lambing them out up there,” said Gregory. “We couldn’t keep track of the number of people who helped us. There must have been at least 300 to 400 people who came through here at one time or another.”
Since the flood of 2007 drowned three-quarters of their dairy flock, the Gregory family has been busy rebuilding their stock. Generous supporters from Wisconsin donated 12 ewes to Black Sheep Creamery, and another 10 donated milking sheep came in from Utah. The Gregory family was even able to reacquire a ram they had previously sold to some friends so that they could keep their East Friesian breeding lines in tact.
Just a few years ago, the Black Sheep Creamery flock had rebounded all the way to 250 head. Today, the Gregory family has cut back to a more manageable flock of 150 sheep and moved their cheese making shop to downtown Chehalis. They have also taken at least one significant step to protect the welfare of their livestock should yet another supposed 100-year flood take aim at their farm — they applied for and received an elevated “critter pad” from the Lewis County Conservation District.
Those elevated surfaces are designed to withstand the flow of floodwaters while providing a safe place for farmers to store their animals and machinery. Since the 2007 flood, local conservation districts have built 17 critter pads in Lewis County, as well as three elevated evacuation routes and another five critter pads in Grays Harbor County.
“We call them livestock and equipment pads now. We don’t call them critter pads. The legislature didn’t like that,” clarified Bob Amrine, manager of the Lewis County Conservation District.
Amrine noted that three projects were just recently completed. However, he also pointed out that due to the lack of a capital budget there are currently no funds remaining to undertake any additional construction until a new budget is passed by the state Legislature.
“We have a couple people we’re looking at helping,” said Amrine. “We’ve knocked off the big commercial dairy guys who wanted them, so now we’re working more on hobby type farms.”
Amrine explained that the next round of projects will likely be designed and permitted this upcoming winter and spring and then built in the summer when construction costs are lower.
Amrine also made sure to dispel a common misnomer regarding the elevated farm pad projects. He said that many people have expressed concern that the Conservation District is actually making matters worse by raising ground within the floodplain, but according to Amrine, that is simply not the case. He explained that fill dirt is always sourced from within the same floodplain, often times by digging the farmer a new pond so that the shuffling of dirt winds up offsetting itself.
“There’s always a zero rise,” said Amrine. “Throughout the permitting process we’re always making sure not to make things worse for the neighbors or anyone downstream.”
The farm pad at Black Sheep Creamery was completed in October 2012, and Brad Gregory says he feels much more at ease knowing that he now has a safe place to shepherd his flock during inevitable flood events.
Ten years after the historic 2007 flood, Amrine isn’t quite as sure how to quantify his feelings about the preparedness of Lewis County farmers in the face of another catastrophic flood.
“That’s a very good question. To be very honest with you, I’m very nervous about it because we haven’t had an event that’s the magnitude of ‘07, so we won’t know until it happens. We really won’t know until we have another large scale event,” Amrine said.
He said it’s one thing for the farm pads to be in place while it’s another thing entirely for farmers to be able to move their herds to safety before the floodwaters arrive.
Amrine used another Adna dairyman, John Brunoff, as an example of a farmer who has done his due diligence in practicing to move his herd of cows onto their elevated pad in a hurry. Amrine says he’s seen Brunoff pull off the maneuver within five minutes.
Over at Black Sheep Creamery, Brad Gregory says he has also made efforts to train his sheep to move onto their elevated safety pad that can fit as many as 200 adult sheep at once.
“We’ve done a few practice runs,” said Gregory. “It’s a tight fit but we’ve done it.”
In total, the farm pads put in place since 2007 are expected to keep safe at least 1,647 cattle, 210 calves, 454 heifers, 165 sheep, 118 goats and 60 horses in Lewis County alone. The total cost of those projects so far has amounted to at least $1,025,081.21.
“I’m a very optimistic guy, and if we do have another one of these flood events, and you know that we will, these structures are going to help out a lot of farmers by keeping their animals out of harm’s way,” Amrine said.