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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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December 5, 2007 6:28 PM

On flood duty

Posted by David Postman

I was one of many reporters sent out to cover the aftermath of the big flood. I went south, to Rochester, Centralia and Chehalis.

In the afternoon I was driving west out of Rochester on Highway 12. I went around the "Road Closed" barrier just out of town — with permission from Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball, who I had run into at a nearby fire station. Walking along the muddy shoulder was big Dan Ditlow and his wife, Bobbie Pflugmacher.

I asked them if they lived nearby and if they had been hit by the flood. "It was damn-near up to my singlewide trailer," Ditlow told me. "But all that water couldn't knock all that steel off those cinder blocks." They knew they were among the lucky ones.

Ditlow offered to show me around so I parked nearby and ran back up to join him and his wife. Ditlow pointed to a river of water running beneath the highway and around a bend where his 1.3 acres of land is. "This grass," he said pointing to small reeds sticking out of the water, "is about seven feet tall." Really? "No exaggeration. I'm not going to b.s. you. Seven-feet tall."

The grass normally grows in a gully of a wetland that snakes past Ditlow's ramshackle compound. Today it looked like small, fast-moving, but muddy river. Ditlow and Pflugmacher moved from near Olympia about six months ago. The new place is a former meth lab, he said. The contaminated double-wide is torn down and gone.

He pointed to the spot on the culvert that marked the water's high mark Tuesday. Today it was a good three feet lower, but as far as we could see everything was wet and muddy.

"Brother, it's bad," he told me. Ditlow asked his neighbor's permission for us to walk through so he could get a good look at his property from a high spot. He said he hadn't ever walked through there before. It's mostly an empty lot with two houses under construction. Ditlow said he had shot his shotgun out across the gully, though.

"I'm just your local hillbilly," he said. He made sure to walk first in our line of three figuring his bulk would cave in any sinkhole before his wife or I would get to it. "There are more trails out here than Carter's got pills," he said. He was careful to hold each whip-like branch so it didn't swing back and hit Pflugmacher. "Watch it here, honey," he'd say. He gave her his knit hat when she said she was cold. He stopped suddenly and crouched down to look at mud prints of what he said was a good sized deer. (A big deer, but maybe not as big as the one that ran into the side of his truck recently that left a head-dent in the door and a butt-dent on the rear fender.)

Dan Ditlow points to his property.

We stood across from his property and got a clear view of the place. There are still a few shacks and an old RV that looks like its being slowly swallowed by the earth. Each day Pflugmacher, 21, goes off to work and Ditlow works the property. "I've been cleaning up and cleaning up every day," he said. Today, though, his best remaining trailer looked like a houseboat.

They had stayed away from the trailer most of Tuesday but were back in their beds last night. "You know, it's beautiful out here. I'll deal with the floods and everything and it's still better than in town," he said.

Pflugmacher said she was awfully glad they didn't have to evacuate. "We would have had to find a place for three pit bulls, a rat, three cats and kittens." That's a lot of animals. "What I'd tell you," Ditlow said. "I'm a redneck hillbilly."

An awfully nice one, though. He even offered me one of the kittens.

Further west on Highway 12, I had to stop when the water covered the road and looked deep enough to swamp my car. I got out just as Frank McCarthy, the owner of the Emerald Turfgrass Farms, and his farm manager, Ken Shumake, were wheeling a piece of irrigation equipment down the road.

Frank McCarthy, left, and Ken Shumake

The pipe had broken free during the flood despite their precaution of chaining it down. They got it back to the farm a few hundred yards away and rolled it into a deep basin of water that Monday was a field of commercial turf.

That was about the worst of it for the farm. The flood waters ran into the barns but stopped inches short of drenching a season's worth of grass seed sitting on wooden pallets. McCarthy said he was trying to look on the bright side. He hopes that maybe with the expanse of flooding this year something will be done about the drainage system in the area.

And maybe there'll be some work on Highway 12, which he calls "Death's Highway." "Every year I've been here someone has been killed here." Including just a few weeks ago right at the intersection where he and Shumake had rolled the pipe through.

There were still wreaths attached to a nearby guardrail in memoriam to the latest fatality.

About 60 people were rescued from this area Tuesday. Today, searchers were out on horseback, in jeeps and a military truck on huge, fat tires looking for any stragglers. Neighbors Jeremy Osbun and Josh Stevenson had their homes surrounded by water, but other than some flooding in Stevenson's garage there was no damage to speak of.

Osbun, left, and Stevenson

But the water was deep. And when the military truck rolled through the two young men warned the driver not to go toward the Chehalis River, even on those fat tires. The locals' warning was heeded. Osbun and Stevenson had been in touch throughout the past few days as first flood warnings came and then floodwaters increased. But they're not sure where another man went to.

"Our other neighbor floated by about 6 a.m. yesterday in a canoe. He was going to stick it out," Stevenson said. "We haven't seen him since."

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