Tonasket flood situation outlined

Tonasket Fire Department Commissioner Jack Denison answers questions from a Discovery Channel reporter at "Sand Bag Central" May 10. Sand Bag Central, located on Tonasket Shop Road near Chief Tonasket Park, is where crews from the state Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Service and other organizations, including Tonasket School District, along with volumes of community volunteers have been filling sandbags for those in need since Tuesday, May 8.

Photo by Katie Teachout
Tonasket Fire Department Commissioner Jack Denison answers questions from a Discovery Channel reporter at "Sand Bag Central" May 10. Sand Bag Central, located on Tonasket Shop Road near Chief Tonasket Park, is where crews from the state Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Service and other organizations, including Tonasket School District, along with volumes of community volunteers have been filling sandbags for those in need since Tuesday, May 8.

TONASKET – Jack Denison, Tonasket Fire District Commissioner, hosted a public safety meeting on the flooding last night, May 15, at Tonasket Elementary School.

Denison said a state Department of Natural Resource Type 3 Incident Management Team is now in place “to support what we already have going on.”

Denison has been overseeing a sandbagging operation on Tonasket Shop Road that is working so efficiently, the production is supporting much of the rest of the county under threat of flooding.

“We have a strong team in place and have already been out and bagged a lot of homes,” Denison said. “We hope in the coming days to get out and strengthen some of those places. If you have a home you want secured, stop by or call and we will do our best.”

Denison can be reached at 509-429-8189.

The DNR team hired most of those volunteering use of heavy equipment at “Sand Bag Central” after Denison explained the importance of the equipment keeping the sandbagging operation fast and efficient.

“I had to get the point across we can't do the job without the equipment critical to the operation and how quick we're putting the bags together. Volunteers have put lots of money and time in. It's absolutely amazing. I don't know how some of them will be paying their fuel bills,” said Denison. “If I had to make a rough estimate of how much I would have had to pay all the volunteers and equipment operators, I would say about $100,000 per day during our peak operation.”

Denison said volunteer hours are being closely recorded, as a certain amount of expenditures have to be reached before FEMA will become involved.

Onsite with the volunteers and DNR are Forest Service crews, Fire Department volunteers, students and staff from Tonasket School District, members of the Mennonite Community and, most recently, inmate crews brought in by the DNR Incident Management Team.

Denison said he received a call from the National Guard, who assured him they were ready to get on a truck and head right over.

“I turned them over to the DNR Incident Management Team, as I didn't want to make the call for them to come and put my name on it until I know who's paying for it,” said Denison. “Both DNR and Forest Service are volunteering their time out of their own budgets, and the Incident Management Team is paid with State Emergency Funds.”

Denison said before the DNR came in, they had shipped out 50,000 bags and gone through 400 yards of sand. The burlap bags for sand are provided by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“At the beginning of today, we had 16,000 full bags on hand, but we might be down to half that now, we've had trucks flying out with full loads all day,” said Denison. “Some folks got caught without much preparation, so we are asking folks to prepare earlier this time, so we don't have to scramble to keep up with demand. We got a good start on these homes that are going to be affected, at least up to the last stage.”

City works

Tonasket City Superintendent Darren Johnson said as far as the city goes, they were good for now, with the water and sewer systems uncompromised at this point.

“I don't think the water will be an issue through this whole thing, but you just don't know, looking at worst case scenarios,” said Johnson.

“I feel really good about the city's effort to protect the sewer system,” said Denison. “Darren and his crew have gone around to cap off every man hole with plastic that may be an issue, after filling the holes with spray foam.”

“We will continue to shore up all the infrastructure we can right now,” said Johnson. “If the sewer is compromised, there will be no school.”

Tonasket School Superintendent Steve McCullough said another criteria for closing schools would be if the Fourth Street Bridge couldn't be used and if Hwy 97 was closed.

“Then we would be landlocked,” said McCullough. “The good news is, because an emergency has been called, the kids don't have to make it up.”

Regarding drinking water, Denison suggested people outside the city didn't need to worry about their well unless it was hand dug or if the well is over the top with water.

“In that case, you should absolutely not drink it,” said Denison.

“Just because it is a drilled well, doesn't mean it's safe,” said Rob Inlow.

If water has a different color or smell, people can get it tested at Tonasket City Hall or Okanogan County Health Department.

When an audience member asked about water seepage into hay fields and their well, Johnson suggested they get it tested.

“City Hall has bottles they send down to be tested, but if you need it done sooner, take it down to the Health Department and they will probably get right on it,” said Johnson.

People in need of drinking water can get hold of city hall, at 509-486-2132, to make arrangements for filling containers.

The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter for community members at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Tonasket last week.

“No one had a use for the shelter, so they packed up,” said Denison. “If needed, the Red Cross can set up hotel rooms, and churches in town are working with them.”

Denison took a tour with a National Weather Service hydrologist from Tonasket to Oroville before the flood meeting May 15, and said the hydrologist felt certain the area would not get to the levels of the 1972 flood.

“But there's a lot of uncertainty with the Canadian snow pack, they just have one gauge and it's on this side of the Similkameen River,” said Dension. “We just have to see what's handed to us.”

Denison said Canadians living on the Similkameen have massive evacuations set up, so “all they to do is pull the trigger to evacuate.”

“Our snowpack doesn't affect us, it's the Similikameen that affects this river,” said Denison. “I want everyone to be prepared for something the magnitude of the 1972 floods. With the River Loop Road north of Tonasket comprismised leaving 11 homes without ingress and egress, I'm hoping the Okanogan County Emergency Management would get out evacuation notices,” said Denison. “With an evacuation notice, people don't need to leave, but remember if the water comes up, it could potentially stay up for a week. Being stuck on an island for a week will open up a whole bunch of potential problems”

The forecast is for the Okanogan River to crest a foot higher than last week, peaking late Sunday or early Monday, possibly cresting at 21.39 feet.

“We had just under 20 inches May 11, and if we get to the forecast of just over 21 feet, we will get road closures,” said Denison. “Highway 97 south of Tonasket is shored up pretty good, but there's a huge chance for seepage. And there's potential for the water to go over the road north of O'Neil road. It's possible before this is over, Oroville could be blocked off from the rest of the county.”

Denison said that while Lake Osoyoos was expected to get to a record high in the next big crest and bring potential flooding to residents there, it would not affect Tonasket, as the lake does not affect the Okanogan River.

“I suspect all those affected in this last go 'round will be affected, and probably not many more,” Dennison said. “Still, we are trying to get more crews in place to meet the demand for sandbags. If you come to volunteer, bring gloves and a shovel.”

“Everyone will be wearing a hard hat now,” said Tonasket City Council member Teagan Levine, on site at Sand Bag Central every day since sandbagging began May 8.

“We've had children on the scene, and a bunch of kids running around is not going to happen anymore. We now have a safety plan in place, where people without hard hats can be in a tent working there.”

There will be some hard hats available at the site.

“Today we gave away more sandbags than ever. Oroville came and got a lot, so we still need volumes more,” Levine said.

“We are being leaned on by the whole county to provide sandbags,” said Denison, adding, “I did notice a home north of town sandbagged; they didn't need them, and took them away from people who need them. If there's any question at all if homes should be bagged, come and ask and we will check it out. I have already told a couple people no, they didn't need it.”

Shade tents have been provided for volunteers on site, as well as snacks and drinks. Stacie Storm with the Okanogan Long Term Recovery Unit set up a tent last week with food she purchased herself with a generous discount at Grant's, along with donations from area businesses. That started the ball rolling.

“Once that happened, lots of people have brought in food,” said Levine. “Walmart delivered 30 cases of water, and the Menonite Community barbequed hamburgers for everyone today. Last week they brought in trays of homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast.”

“This community, especially Tonasket, has really stepped up to the plate on this, more so than any other community in the county,” Denison said. “It's great to see everyone come together, and I think people had some fun doing it.”

Denison, who is the Transportation Superintendent for Tonasket School District, said he put out a call last week across all the school emails for help sandbagging.

“A moment later, there was an okay for students to be released to their parents to come down and help,” said Denison. “I really feel that the school district really took a big step up to the plate on this. During early release last week, all building administrators said 'head down and helped out with equipment needs as well.' We are all in this together.”

Inlow suggested sandbags being sent up to the schools to be filled during PE classes.

“I can't send kids down without parent permission, but I can do a lot here, and we will,” said McCullough.

“Jack, Teagan and Barbara (Greene) are really putting out a lot of effort to get this done,” said resident Glenna Brown. Greene has been volunteering her time keeping track of all the volunteer hours others are putting in.

“Things really came together. We started with a small crew, and DNR stepped in, then the Forest Service stepped up to the plate along with lots of volunteers, and it took off from there,” said Denison. “That's what we do here. As we keep track of costs and damages, the Feds may step in with clean-up efforts, but that's a huge maybe. It really takes the governor to push it up the hill; it really does. I am just really small on this.”

Denison is the Commissioner of Fire District No. 4, along with his full-time job with the school district.

“I'm still working 40 hours a week at the school, but I put on my fire commissioner's hat to keep the public safe,” said Denison, whose job at the moment seems unending.

“By 10 a.m. tomorrow, this river forecast will be different. Heck, by 2 a.m. it will be different. They use computer models to figure this out. Right now, the Okanogan River is not following the forecast. The Similikameen is following the forecast, and has taken a step-up approach rather than direct,” said Denison. “Put the message out, be prepared for the worst.”


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