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Skagit River raged on Thanksgiving and now these homes are at risk of falling in

A neighbor looks at the eroded embankment scoured by the Skagit River during the Thanksgiving Day flood in Lyman, Washington. Homes that were 200 feet from the channel are in danger of falling into the river.
A neighbor looks at the eroded embankment scoured by the Skagit River during the Thanksgiving Day flood in Lyman, Washington. Homes that were 200 feet from the channel are in danger of falling into the river. Skagit Valley Herald

Although the Skagit River has fallen below flood stage and floodwaters have subsided throughout much of Skagit County, some homes in this small town are at risk due to erosion.

As the river rose and flooded Wednesday through Friday, it cut away at the bank bordering homes on Main and Second streets. It also carried away a propane tank, septic tank and a garage, homeowners told officials Monday.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, county Department of Emergency Management staff and Lyman officials met Monday morning with property owners, at least two of whom can no longer live in their riverside homes.

“It’s eaten away under my neighbor’s porch and my foundation. (The house is) hanging there over a cliff basically,” Michael Taxdahl told the Skagit Valley Herald while preparing to meet with officials.

He said he and his fiancé, their three daughters ages 3 to 6, and the family dog had to leave the house Thanksgiving Day after realizing the situation was serious.

“We can’t move back in there. I’m counting on FEMA to come in and take care of this,” Taxdahl said.

Town, county and federal officials are discussing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ways to help Taxdahl and his neighbors Mark Harris and Valencia Moffatt, and Richard and Vicky Guidinger relocate or protect what’s left of their homes.

Pipes and tree roots stick out of newly exposed dirt in a widened side channel of the river where several acres of land were lost last week.

“This is all new. I remember this being a little trickle (of a stream) and all grass out there,” Janicki said while looking out at the scene from next to Taxdahl’s home.

The Guidingers and homeowners to the east of them on Second Street called 911 last week to report they feared for their homes, according to Skagit County Sheriff’s Office reports.

I don’t feel comfortable. I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the house. Not until something is done.

Richard Guidinger, whose home is threatened by the river erosion.

The Board of Skagit County Commissioners on Friday afternoon requested the corps help protect the riverside town from erosion that would damage water lines, phone lines and electrical lines if left unchecked, according to a news release.

“The erosion that took place happened at a lot greater pace than anyone had anticipated, by like 70 to 80 feet overnight one night,” Skagit County Department of Emergency Management Director Doug ten Hoopen said. “It (the river) was pretty fast and moving, and even though it has significantly subsided right now it’s like, OK we’re now within 100 feet of a main road that a lot of utilities come off of.”

Our condolences go out to everybody affected … but our authority doesn’t allow us to help private property owners and private homeowners.

Bill Dowell, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

While the corps has been asked to provide aid, it can’t do so in an emergency capacity since there is no longer active flooding or a risk to infrastructure other than private homes.

“In order for us to provide emergency assistance, public infrastructure needs to be at imminent risk,” corps spokesman Bill Dowell said.

He said corps staff visited Lyman on Wednesday and Friday to assess the situation and determined that although there was severe erosion along a side channel in the southwest part of town, it appeared only private property was at risk.

“Our condolences go out to everybody affected … but our authority doesn’t allow us to help private property owners and private homeowners. We are limited by law to protecting public infrastructure,” Dowell said.

That has frustrated those whose lives were uprooted last week.

“They don’t care about the people,” Vicky Guidinger said.

Dowell said the corps can provide technical assistance to local governments that are responsible for finding solutions to disaster situations that threaten private property. The corps can also launch long-term studies to help shape future development plans and local regulations.

“That’s not going to help them if there’s another flood event in two weeks,” Dowell said. “The city and county need to look at what they can do to start mitigating that.”

He said the law likely puts the responsibility on local governments in order to prevent federal tax dollars from being spent repeatedly in certain places.

“Imagine if this was happening along the Mississippi or Ohio River. How would you feel if federal taxpayer money was spent every year on fixing it?” Dowell said. “Public infrastructure is something that’s important to the entire nation, but somebody’s house unfortunately – here or along the Mississippi or the Ohio river – that doesn’t have a public or national significance.”

Lyman Mayor Eddie Hills said he spent much of Thanksgiving with the families who watched their land slip away.

“It’s been a nightmare, and now there’s a bunch of legal tape to cut through,” he said.

Working with the county and DelBene, Hills said the town is seeking to have the Skagit River’s “Wild and Scenic” designation waived in town, which would potentially allow riverbank stabilizing projects to be done at a faster pace.

They’re also looking into whether the three property owners primarily affected by the recent flooding could qualify for FEMA buyouts.

“We’ve reached out to FEMA,” DelBene said. “People obviously feel a sense of urgency, and so do we.”

Meanwhile, Taxdahl and his family are living in a trailer with family in the Sedro-Woolley area and the Guidingers are bunking with family in Mount Vernon.

“I’m sleeping on the floor and my wife is sleeping on the couch,” Richard Guidinger said. “All I have is one pair of jeans and two shirts. … I’m living out of a trash bag.”

That follows a Thanksgiving Day that those families spent packing their belongings overnight and listening to trees “snapping off like Popsicle sticks” as the river rose, Richard Guidinger said.

The Guidingers may be able to move back in to their home, which they built in 2010 on property Vicky Guidinger’s family has had for nearly 100 years.

She said she inherited the property from her grandmother, and the couple then designed and built their dream house.

But moving back in now could be risky.

“I don’t feel comfortable. I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the house. Not until something is done,” Richard Guidinger said.

The Guidinger’s house is now steps from the cliff carved out by the river.

“This flood I lost about 10 feet of land an hour. With 23 feet of land left between the river and the foundation, next time I'll have around two hours,” he said.

The Guidinger, Harris and Taxdahl families each have set up GoFundMe accounts to help pay expenses. As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, donors had given more than $6,300 through the site.

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