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December 9, 2007

Seeing flood damage, and politics, from up high

Posted by David Postman at 11:30 AM

I spent most of Saturday flying around southwest Washington as the state's top politicians viewed flood damage, made announcements of aid and thanks emergency officials and volunteers. But as I write in this morning's paper, this was a lobbying trip. Gov. Christine Gregoire, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Congressman Norm Dicks were the well-known names on board the Washington National Guard helicopter. But much of the day's activities were aimed at convincing federal officials of the need, and the urgency, of federal flood relief.

Sitting on the 50-foot long helicopter with the state officials were J. Richard Capka, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, Carlos Castillo, FEMA's assistant administrator for disaster assistance, Thomas Barrett, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and their aides and underlings.

There already was some tension obvious as state officials had made clear their frustration that President Bush had not yet approved widespread aid for flood victims. I wonder if it was a coincidence at all — or just a smart move — that as the helicopter was ready to take off, Bush announced the first round of disaster assistance. It changed the tone of the stories that followed, with mine and others leading with the disaster declaration.

But what was announced Saturday is really a small piece of what Washington state officials want. They're looking for individual assistance from FEMA. That would give cash grants of up to $28,000 per person. It would also allow the state to issue unemployment benefits and food stamps on an emergency basis.

There were about 24 people on the Washington National Guard Chinook helicopter, including the politicians' staffs, state and federal officials, National Guard officials, a TV cameraman, an AP photographer and me. We sat on the ground for a little while because the helicopter's engines wouldn't start. After a jump start, we were lumbering into the air and on the way to Chehalis.


At W.F. West High School in Chehalis, House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt asked Gregoire for help in getting a local water system restarted.

The press was kept out of a meeting there between the travelling dignataries and local officials. Press aides for Cantwell and Gregoire told me I couldn't go in, though no one could explain what was going on that required a press-free zone.

Afterwards, DeBolt said it was a misunderstanding. He said the locals wanted to meet with the Gregoire and the others in a large circle they formed on the gym floor. "We just didn't want press standing in the circle," he said.

I drove with DeBolt from the high school to a makeshift United Way center downtown. He said he has been pleased with the state response but thought the feds were too slow in responding with emergency relief funds.

The volunteer center was remarkable. There were easily 100 people in what was pre-flood a vacant hardware store. Cars pulled up outside with donations. Inside a coordinator shouted from a staircase for workers to deliver goods or for other chores.

It was there that Gregoire announced the state would take over a local levee project that has been stymied for years. In 2003, $30 million of money to be raised with an increase in the state gas tax was to go to pay the local share of a project that would have built a series of levees around the spot on I-5 that suffered major flooding last week.

That never got built because local officials could never agree on which city or agency should be in charge and work with the federal government which was to pay more than $70 million for its share. Eventually the $30 million set aside for Lewis County levees was spent on other transportation projects, Gregoire and Murray told me Saturday.

The Olympian wrote about the levee project today.

"The issue always comes down to who's going to pay for the building of it, and the maintenance of it," Centralia Mayor Tim Browning said. "So far, it's always come down to the city of Centralia should pay about 60 percent of the maintenance costs, and that isn't going to happen."

It hasn't been a priority for the federal government, either.

Bush has not included funding for the Chehalis River project in his requests to Congress since 2004, said Mona Thomason, chief of the planning branch for the Corps of Engineers Seattle District.

Congress has included some design money since 1999, although it was as little as $25,000 in 2006, but the Bush administration has focused on projects with a higher projected rate of return, she said.

Gregoire and Murray, who heads the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Saturday's announcement will clear the way for the project to finally begin. Gregoire will ask the Legislature to authorize $50 million in bonds, which is now the local share. Murray said there is $74 million for the levees in the budget bill that recently survived after a Congressional override of President Bush's veto.

"We're finally working in concert in a we haven't been for a very long time," Murray said.

Anything the governor does these days is obviously going to be looked at by some as a political move. But comments from DeBolt and other Republicans Saturday showed no sign of local dissent. In Gregoire's press release on the levee funding she thanked DeBolt and other Republican lawmakers from the area.

(When I was in Centralia last week, some people said the levees had broken, sending a wall of water through their homes and businesses. But Gregoire said they didn't break. There was just so much water they were overrun and "created a bathtub" that soaked I-5 and the surrounding area. The state and county later breached the levees in two different spots to allow the water to flow away from town.)

From Chehalis, we flew to the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds at Elma. One thing I'm not sure any of the politicians could have said without it being misconstrued: It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and the skies were as clear as I've seen them in weeks. We were able to watch the scenery below from the open rear ramp. Like the politicians, I had a webbed harness on that was tethered to the helicopter floor when I wanted to venture to the open hatch and get an incomparable view of the muddy flood waters below.


From left, Gregoire, Murray and FEMA's Carlos Castillo look at flood damage from the back of a Washington National Guard helicopter.

We flew over a massive slide on Highway 6. Gregoire said the mountain side is still unstable and state transportation workers have not been able to work there yet. "It may look like a rural road, but its a major transportation corridor," Cantwell said as she watched out a small side window in the helicopter. She later urged Gregoire to come up with specific figures about how much timber moves on the road to show the federal government.

On our front page today is a story that says the flooding may have been made worse by development and logging in Lewis County. In Grays Harbor County, officials say the problem is the opposite: Environmental policies made things worse and will also hamper recovery efforts.

Officials with the Grays Harbor Public Utilities District said that laws restricting how far back trees can be cut from streams and rivers left too many tall trees standing too close to electrical towers. When the winds and floods came, the trees hit the towers which "just crumpled like an accordion," said Richard Lovely, general manager of the PUD. He said five towers on the BPA line into the county were lost. "We just kept watching things collapse and collapse," he said.

He and others blamed the state law requiring buffers of trees between sensitive habitat and cleared land, whether for logging or a utility right-of-way. Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, told me that some trees that took down utility towers had been required to be left standing because they were designated habitat for the endangered marbeled murrelet.

There will also be a renewed push to allow more salvage logging following the flood. People in Grays Harbor say there will be trees rotting on the ground if loggers are not allowed to go after the windfall.

Dicks told me he's certain some additional salvage logging will be allowed. But he couldn't say how much. But it was clear that even limited logging will be controversial. Neither Dicks nor Murray seemed anxious for the D.C. battles that are certain to come with any push for salvage logging.

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