U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell toured the flood-damaged town of Sumas on Tuesday, Jan. 25, as local residents, business owners, and Whatcom County officials appealed for federal help now and in the months ahead.
“Individual assistance is already underway with FEMA,” the state and private donors, Cantwell told The Bellingham Herald.
“But what we really need to focus on now is getting the federal disaster declaration, making sure that federal money can assist in public works repairs that need to happen in the community, and also to look at some of the solutions to prevent this level of flooding in the future,” Cantwell said in an interview.
President Biden issued a federal disaster declaration to provide money for affected residents and businesses earlier this month, but a different kind of designation is required to fund public-works projects such as repairs for bridges, roads and levees.
Current estimates show more than $100 million in damages from two rounds of flooding along the Nooksack River in November 2021, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.
An Everson man died when he was swept away by floodwaters early Nov. 15, 2021.
Floodwaters devastated communities along the Nooksack River from the South Fork Valley to Lummi Nation, where the river flows into Bellingham Bay.
Bellingham received nearly triple its normal November rainfall of 5.2 inches as storms repeatedly battered Western Washington, melting snow in the mountains and sending immense amounts of water downstream into the swollen river channel.
Scientists believe that such devastating storms are being caused by climate change and that Western Washington can expect more frequent damaging weather, such as heat waves and torrential rain.
“This is the biggest and most impactful natural disaster to hit Whatcom County in its history since it became a county 167 years ago,” Gargett said at Sumas City Hall, where officials gathered after examining flood damage and talking to several residents.
Cantwell stopped by the Bob’s Burgers and Brew on Cherry Street in Sumas, less than a mile from the U.S.-Canada border, where David Wynn told her that debris-filled water surged through the restaurant doors in a waist-deep torrent.
“The mud on a lot of the inside was up to the light switches,” said Wynn, who was leading a mostly-volunteer repair effort for the owner, who is a friend.
At the Loca Mocha coffee shop up the street, owner Nicole Postma of Sumas said her restaurant was already struggling from the effects of the 2020 flood and also the pandemic closures when the 2021 flood hit.
Hers and her husband’s cars were submerged in water and their home was damaged and without heat for several weeks — including the period from Christmas to New Year’s when temperatures dropped below freezing.
She recently laid off all 10 of her employees because business has dropped with so many Sumas residents displaced.
“Just don’t forget about us, that we’re here, we still need help,” Postma told The Herald.
“If you could come out for dinner just once ... I know that these shops that are independently owned mom and pop businesses would greatly appreciate your business. It would make all the difference in the world,” she said.
Cantwell also told The Herald that she’s going to support a bipartisan effort in the Senate to add more money to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, in hopes that it could help flood-ravaged communities.
“It’s not just the flood (damage) that’s happened to them, it’s the lack of traffic. It’s a double-whammy,” she said.
Later, Cantwell visited Sumas City Hall, where she listened to the mayors of Lynden, Everson and Sumas, along with representatives of Lummi Nation, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.
They sat in folding chairs in an unfurnished room where sodden drywall had been removed and wiring was being replaced.
Everson Mayor John Perry said that long-term solutions are required, but other work can begin in the meantime.
“Some of these homes that flooded weren’t even in the flood plain,” Perry said. “It’s not just the weather that’s changed. Our river has changed. We’ve got to come up with money for solutions, and we’ve got to do it now — this summer.”
Whatcom County Flood Recovery Manager Kyle Christensen, who was mayor of Sumas when the city was inundated by floods in January-February 2020 and in November 2021, said hundreds of people remain displaced from their damaged homes, and it could be two or three years before they able to return.
“We need to provide hope and encouragement to the people who live here,” he said.