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Top stories of '09: A soldier dies, a school burns

A Fort Lewis Honors team carries out the casket of U.S. Army Spec. Aaron Aamot at the end of a memorial service for Aamot in the Ferndale High gymnasium on Saturday November 14, 2009 in Ferndale. Aamot was killed Nov. 5, 2009 while serving in Afghanistan.
A Fort Lewis Honors team carries out the casket of U.S. Army Spec. Aaron Aamot at the end of a memorial service for Aamot in the Ferndale High gymnasium on Saturday November 14, 2009 in Ferndale. Aamot was killed Nov. 5, 2009 while serving in Afghanistan. ANDY BRONSON | THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

When Whatcom County residents look back on 2009, the economy likely will be the main topic. Its impact was pervasive - from homes to jobs to businesses to government.

But the faltering economy was not the only big story of the year. Here is a look at 10 top Whatcom County stories of 2009, in no particular order, as judged by The Bellingham Herald news reporters.

WIDESPREAD ECONOMIC WOES

When it comes to the economy, possibly the biggest news this year is what didn't happen in Whatcom County.

At the beginning of 2009, an economic depression seemed a real possibility. The closure of Alcoa Intalco Works and the laying off of some 500 employees was looming, but thanks to a December deal with its power supplier, it was able to survive. Whatcom County did not see a double-digit unemployment rate, although it was predicted by some at the beginning of the year.

Of course, what's being termed nationally as The Great Recession did happen, impacting Whatcom County. The unemployment rate jumped from around 5 percent to more than 8 percent as thousands of residents were suddenly out of work. Several major retailers closed at the beginning of the year in the Meridian area. Foreclosures and bankruptcies skyrocketed locally, although the rates were not as bad as the state and national averages. Private construction projects came to a halt, and it showed in employment: The number of people employed in construction hit the lowest levels since 2002.

For details about the top economic stories of the year, see page C1 in the business section of today's edition or go to TheBellinghamHerald.com and click on the Business section.

- Dave Gallagher

CUSTER SOLDIER KILLED

The war in Afghanistan was brought home after Custer native Spc. Aaron Aamot was killed Nov. 5 by a roadside bomb.

Aamot, 22, was in the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment and was part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based in Fort Lewis. He was on his first deployment to Afghanistan when the Stryker vehicle he was driving struck a bomb buried in the road.

When a motorcade brought Aamot's body from Bellingham International Airport to Moles Family Funeral Home in Ferndale on Nov. 12, thousands of people lined the roads, holding signs and waving flags.

Aamot, the fifth of eight children of Mark and Julie Aamot, was laid to rest at Haynie Cemetery in Custer on Nov. 14. Mayor Gary Jensen has declared it Spc. Aaron Seth Aamot Day in Ferndale, where Aamot graduated from high school in 2006.

- Zoe Fraley

HISTORIC SCHOOL BURNS

Whatcom Middle School caught fire in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, sending the school's students, families and teachers into upheaval. Meanwhile, the community stepped up and donated time, money and supplies.

The fire appeared to have started on the roof of the 106-year-old school, quickly engulfing the top part of the building due to windy conditions. It burned for more than 13 hours, destroying the roof and many of the classrooms on the top floor, while water from the fire hoses flooded the bottom level of the school, warped the brand-new gym floor and left a soggy mess in the library.

Students and staff were back in class a week after the fire, split among other Bellingham schools in a way that kept together grade levels. Discussions are ongoing as to where students and staff will be located for the coming school years while Whatcom Middle School is rebuilt.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

- Kira M. Cox

RAID BRINGS NATIONAL ATTENTION

A February immigration raid at Yamato Engine Specialists, 2020 E. Bakerview Road, helped focus national attention on immigration policy in the new Obama administration.

The detention of 28 Yamato workers on immigration violations triggered an outcry from immigrant advocates who complained that the raid unfairly targeted workers instead of employers, seeming to contradict what was supposed to be the new administration's policy.

But it soon became clear that company officials, too, were in investigators' crosshairs.

In April, federal agents came back to Yamato and seized computers and employment records. In August, two Yamato officials pleaded guilty to felony immigration law violations, admitting that they knew that at least some of their workers were in the country illegally. Both received a year's probation.

Prosecutors said it was the first successful prosecution of an employer in Western Washington.

-John Stark

FLOODWATERS INUNDATE COUNTY

Barely a week into this year, 2008's major snowstorm came back with a vengeance as heavy rains melted snowpack, causing a deluge of water to inundate Whatcom County in the worst flooding in 20 years. A state of emergency was declared in the county, as well as in several other counties in Western Washington.

Travel halted as floodwaters swept over and even washed out bridges, roads and highways. Residents saw water pour into their homes, damaging the structures and ruining belongings.

Landslides in the east county trapped many residents for days until crews could clear roads. It cost almost $3 million to repair flood-damaged infrastructure such as roads, highways and bridges, with some of the work not finished in 2009.

-Peter Jensen

NEW MUSEUM OPENS

When the Lightcatcher Building opened Nov. 14 in downtown Bellingham, thousands of people came to see the community's new art museum, which also has a gallery set aside for children to explore art and the environment.

The Lightcatcher, at 250 Flora St., gets its name from a curved, translucent wall - 37 feet tall and 180 feet long - that collects and reflects light from the outside world and from inside the building.

The total project cost: $18.3 million.

The 1892 Old City Hall Building served as the main art gallery space for Whatcom Museum prior to the Lightcatcher. But the modern Lightcatcher has state-of-the-art systems to control temperature, light and moisture. That will allow museum officials to bring in better art, including traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian Institution.

- Kie Relyea

SWINE FLU FEARS

For most people in Whatcom County, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the H1N1 flu was getting their hands on the vaccine.

Public health officials here urged people to get the vaccine when they could, saying it was their best bet for combating what also is known as swine flu and preventing its rapid spread.

But until the second week of December, the vaccine was limited to a priority group that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said should be the first to get it.

That's because manufacturers took longer than expected to make it, so the vaccine was reserved for those most likely to contract and spread the flu, or those with medical conditions that placed them at higher risk for flu complications.

The vaccine scarcity wasn't felt in Whatcom County alone. It was a factor in the state and across the country.

- Kie Relyea

COUNTY COUNCIL SWINGS RIGHT

The Whatcom County Council saw major changes in 2009 and going into 2010. Kathy Kershner and Bill Knutzen, favorites of the local Republican Party and other conservative organizations, defeated former Councilman Dan McShane and Councilwoman Laurie Caskey-Schreiber in the fall election to become new representatives in the coming year. Their elections have the potential to shift the council to a more conservative approach, with Councilwoman Barbara Brenner considered the swing vote on issues.

Meanwhile, Councilman Bob Kelly resigned after the elections and, due to a lack of consensus by council members, a replacement pick was placed in the hands of County Executive Pete Kremen.

- Sam Taylor

NOAA REJECTS BELLINGHAM

From a Bellingham perspective, it seemed like a perfect fit: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would move its Pacific Marine Operations Center here from Seattle, providing a vibrant new use for the Port of Bellingham's under-used shipping terminal.

With its estimated 78 shoreside employees, plus 178 researchers and onboard crew members assigned to the center's six large vessels, the NOAA center would add much-needed jobs, along with a major tenant to anchor the south end of a redeveloped central waterfront.

But in August, NOAA stunned Bellingham by choosing Newport, Ore., for its new home. NOAA officials said Newport undercut Bellingham's bid for the 20-year lease by close to $1.5 million per year.

Port of Bellingham commissioners, backed by city officials and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, were pursuing an appeal of NOAA's decision at year's end, in hopes that a flood plain issue at Newport would ultimately disqualify the Oregon city's bid. But both NOAA and Newport professed to be unconcerned, even after the Government Accountability Office ruled that NOAA had improperly failed to deal with the flood plain situation in its site selection process.

NOAA said it expected to be able to satisfy the GAO's concerns and move its center to Newport.

-John Stark

COUNTY, BUSINESS TANGLE WITH TRIBE

Both Whatcom County and Fairhaven Shipyard became embroiled with Lummi Nation in 2009.

At year's end, county officials were scrambling to work out a five-year extension of their Lummi Island ferry dock lease with the tribe. The existing lease expires in February 2010, and county officials believe they cannot enforce a 25-year lease extension option in the expiring lease, signed by tribal officials in 1988. That's because the 1988 document never received the required approval of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribal officials said they want the county to address traffic problems and other impacts before they agree to the five-year deal, and they also indicated they want the ferry dock moved from its current location eventually.

At the shipyard, a big Alaska ferry was lined up to be the first user of a refurbished floating drydock in November. But the tribe blocked the issuance of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits for the project, demanding, among other things, that the shipyard agree to hefty payments to the tribe as a condition of their approval.

Shipyard boss Neil Turney hoisted the big ferry without a permit, then worked out an undisclosed deal with tribal officials that seemed to end the matter.

-John Stark



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