Palouse Flood 1996 – 20 years remembered
PALOUSE, WA – Twenty years ago, February 1996, the Palouse area was hit with a flood larger and more damaging than any in recorded history. The raging waters during the icy cold of the winter ripped through the area causing destruction, confusion, desolation and fear. However, through the devastation, communities came together, neighbors worked to help neighbors and people from parts unknown ventured into the “war zone” to lend a hand. This comradeship tied the community together tighter than any other event. The next 20 years would become the decades to watch as the City of Palouse rose from the muddy waters and bloomed like a beautiful rose.
The Palouse Flood of 1996 was the worst on record, according to the National Weather service. The Palouse River crested at 22.15 feet at their gauge near Potlatch. The flood in January of 1974 was reported the second highest cresting at 21.08 feet.
It is not uncommon for the Palouse River to spill over its banks and, through the years, residents have become used to it. Even though these were called “floods” they seldom did much damage. It is just part of the excitement of living on the Palouse River.
February of 1996 just “felt different.” The water was rising, yes, but a record snowfall during December and a Chinook wind blowing down the river caused the thick ice to thaw quickly and chunks of ice, some the size of houses, came together lining up like dominoes forming dams up and down the river. These “dams” caught debris, trees, sheds … people began to watch the water much more carefully.
It was about February 7 when waters started to rise and spectators along the riverbanks grew by the hour.
By about February 10 the river was lapping at the top of the banks and spilling into yards and streets. By the morning of February 13 officials were calling for evacuation of everyone on Main Street and lowlands – “grab your children and yourselves and get out!”
Denial from residents was definitely prevalent. The mantra that rang out “It floods here all the time” slowed evacuation. Early Saturday morning those living on and around Main Street received a phone call at about 6:30 a.m. saying something like, “Get your kids up and dressed and be ready in 15 minutes. Firemen will be at your door to help you leave for higher ground.” Protests were not entertained. The voice on the phone kept repeating, “the firemen will be there to help you out. You do not have time to pack.” At least one resident argued they would be fine and planned to stay in the house. They were informed – firmly – this was not a choice, it was a mandatory evacuation and they needed to get ready to leave.
Firemen and volunteers were knocking on doors, carrying children on their shoulders and directing adults to wade through the chest deep water, holding tightly to ropes put in place. A few boats were seen up and down Main Street, helping with the process (some just riding the unusual water for entertainment). The story of a single mom with six children (three still in diapers) having to be carried out on the shoulders of firemen – leaving with nothing – hit the national news.
Help comes in many ways
Red Cross comes to do what they do best
The Red Cross went into disaster relief mode and were at their best as they took over food purchasing as well as coordination of volunteers (originally started by Ruth Watkins of Palouse and Marilyn Chaney of Viola, ID). They set up evacuation centers, serving up to 700 meals a day. Townsfolk added to the relief efforts as an untold number of meals, blankets, warm clothing, diapers were found and donated. The local Future Homemakers of America chapter made some 165 dozen cookies and who knows how many sandwiches were made, how many salads were brought by neighbors and friends. People opened their homes for displaced families and the school offered its facility for those needing a warm place to sleep. Meals were served at the school and at the Grange and the community center at various times. Hot coffee for volunteers was running nearly as fast as the river itself.
FEMA appeared on the scene as well to offer grants and low interest loans to assist with flood damage.
Pump house, loss of town’s drinking water threatened
They came and they never let up
Taking care of the confused and devastated residents was only one aspect of the coordinated relief taking place during this disaster.
Palouse found very early into the flood that the town’s drinking water was in very real danger of being contaminated, damaged or maybe lost. A huge amount of attention was directed to the 100+ year old pump house and well that sits on the bank of the Palouse River.
City’s water is saved!
It is not known who may have come up with the idea to build a dike around the pump house to keep the flood water at bay but the decision was quickly embraced.
Men and women, trucks, backhoes, graders all lined up at the site as load after load of dirt and gravel was dumped and molded around that small, very necessary century old building (built in 1888). Gravel trucks and loaders came to help from as far away as LaCrosse and Tekoa, Moses Lake, Quad Cities Construction and Palouse Country Trucking (Tekoa) – staying on the scene for at least a week, making sure the dike would hold. The City Maintenance crew stayed on site 24/7 supervising to make sure their town would have life sustaining water.
Whoops and hollers from the volunteers could be heard from far around as they yelled and screamed in jubilation when they found their hard work had paid off. The pump house still stands as a testimonial to a real team effort of persistent men, women and children who refused to give into the power of Mother Nature.
Through all this, the Palouse Police Department continued to work behind the scenes as six phone lines set up in Chief Phineas Haglin’s home kept volunteers busy taking calls from worried family members and friends and calls coming in to offer help from as far away as Moses Lake as well as at least 200 volunteers ready to bring help from Rosalia.
The people came.
And they never let up.
Washington State University in Pullman and University of Idaho in Moscow cancelled classes and students came by the car, bus, van loads. They were met by jubilant and very tired locals who cheered the relief young, healthy students would bring.
They did what they were asked to do and then did more than that. People of all ages and from all walks of life worked side by side, working until they were exhausted and then working a little bit longer. It was an emotional time and quite touching to see the turnout of help and the sense of belonging. It was tension-wracked as the rising water threatened to demolish their hard work.
15,000+ sandbags filled
Nearby the pump house, volunteers were proactive as they shoveled sand into bags non-stop since before the flood even hit. Those bags (an estimated 15,000+) would be strategically placed wherever needed to keep water from entering not only the pump house but many businesses and homes downtown. Sandbagging is backbreaking work and many baggers stayed working on the line for 8, 10, 20 hours at a time – taking breaks only to regain enough energy to begin again. As volunteers shoveled they’d take a moment to see who was next to them and were thrilled and relieved to see the town’s youth were among the majority of those working so hard.
In other places on Main Street, businessmen and homeowners were striving feverishly to salvage whatever they could from their businesses and homes. Some found themselves torn to double duty as their home as well as their business was located in floodwaters on Main Street. At first, a cursory count of damage reported about 40 homes and 20 businesses with major damage.
Help continues as water recedes
Fortunately help didn’t stop when the flood began to recede. Cleanup brought a good crowd of faithfuls with their trucks, tractors, already tired backs, and willing hands. And then there was more food made to keep the workers energized. Food volunteers cooked and washed dishes only to fill them again and again.
Fire trucks and volunteers came from Oakesdale-Farmington, LaCrosse, Garfield, Potlatch and Whitman County Rural District #8 to help with the enormous task of washing the mud and debris from roads and sidewalks.
The “get it done” attitude prevailed.
Hard working crews from Airway Heights brought in about 30 generators and worked all weekend helping with clean-up. The LDS Church in Potlatch cancelled church that Sunday and the entire congregation traveled over to pitch in and help people pump water from basements, carry out ruined material and furniture to dumpsters placed all over town and, more importantly, encouraged the downtrodden residents who cried, feeling helpless, at their loss.
Damage assessed, ideas formed to “rebuild” town
All of the businesses on Palouse Main Street suffered damage but those topping the list were the Gar-Pal Market and the museum. Several businesses (mainly offices including city offices and the police department) were displaced while repairs were made.
The grocery store suffered a loss of “easily $20,000-$30,000” just in compromised merchandise alone. The building owners (Diane and John Cooper) ultimately found massive damage, so much so the store could not reopen in that location. Recognizing the immediate need for the town’s grocery to reopen, the community center was made ready for the store to operate in that space temporarily. Eventually, the owners of the store (LeRoy and Cheryl Sanders) rebuilt in an empty lot across from the community center.
The museum was closed for a while as the historical society members decided how to fix the building and where to get the money. This damage was key in prompting ideas discussed at Palouse Chamber meetings for what later became an extremely popular event here – Haunted Palouse. The major success of this yearly event has provided enough money to nearly rebuild the museum as well as money for many other groups and civic organizations. The Haunted Palouse events continue to this day – providing money for many groups in town.
Town meetings, talks continue for weeks
The Palouse City Council, with Bruce Baldwin as mayor, moved to weekly meetings, instead of monthly, in order to discuss and assess damage to the town and buildings. At the first meeting the council took reports of damages.
The sewer’s damage and position of the plant inspired talks about a new sewer plant, placing equipment on higher ground. City employee Don Myott told the council he had to “jump ship” from the plant about 11:30 Thursday night due to the rising water. The power to the building had been cut 30 hours before and the plant had been running with an emergency generator since that time until Saturday afternoon.
“The city park lost a few small trees, the small slide and possibly the little train ride,” City Superintendent Byron Hodges told the council at that first meeting after the flood. He said he felt there would be no contamination for anyone playing at the park, “A kid playing in the creek in the summer would get more contamination.”
Gravel purchased by the city to go around the pump house cost about $30,000 and it would be recycled to other areas of the city needing fill. Citizens were told they were welcome to what remains of the 15,000-plus sandbags.
The police department had about 207 employee hours in seven days, beating out Palouse Days for “a more worked week.” The city had one burglary, one attempted suicide and one boating accident/property damage on Main Street. Some found the raging waters down Main Street an invitation to get boats out for some recreation. One young man hit a garage with his jet ski – making national news. Department losses included the evidence locker as well as property inside, a shotgun, all furniture, police/court records for the 1940 and 1950s, a printer and some personal property of Chief Haglin.
The city offices moved into rooms at the Bank of Latah but the Police Department had to relocate into the back seat of their patrol car. The bank offered offices for them as well but Chief Haglin had a bit of a problem with bringing crime suspects into the bank. (That would sort of be like dangling the cheese in front of the mouse, now wouldn’t it?) – 2/15/1996 Boomerang newspaper report.
The city library, in the front of the city offices, closed indefinitely but not forever. It took some time to clean and fix the library book cases and other fixtures but it was done in a few months and volunteers began moving books back in – they had been put in the attic of the building for safe keeping.
Other listed damages include:
- Grumbacher’s Limited (Steve McGehee – $10,000);
- Potpourri (Ruth Watkins) said they would open in about a month.
- Open only a month before the flood, Palouse Munitions, lost about 30,000 rounds of ammunition valued at $150 per thousand, some furniture damage.
- Bagott Motors – Bud Bagott, said they had no damage, all cars were moved to higher ground, office had about eight feet of water.
- Little City Studios (Telisa Swan) cleanup $5,000.
- Precision Printing, (Elbert and Laura Pillers) lost 384 cubic feet of paper as well as structural damage to the building.
- The Dining Car (restaurant) on West Main Street will not reopen. Owner Gary Hanks said he may move it in with the Palouse Cabouse – this business also suffered a burglary during the flood.
- Recycling Center (Gene McGee), may not reopen at all. They are still discussing options.
- Oasis Cafe (Paul Beyer) will reopen soon.
- Palouse Grain Growers, 18 inches of water and some structural damage from broken water pipes in business next door (Little City Studio).
- Boomerang newspaper office (LuJane Alger-Herbert), about two feet of water, furniture damage, files lost, old newspapers.
- Palouse Welding (Ed Anderson), $2,000 in damage to motors on lathes and milling equipment.
- Palouse Laundromat and Car Wash (Mike Burt), minimal damage.
- The apartments next to the Post Office flooded, residents lost most of their personal belongings.
About 80 homes were damaged. Several lost their homes entirely.
Al and Rose Northrop’s apartment across from the Community Center (now the Palouse Health Center) suffered extensive damage with 40″ deep water inside. Building owner Jim Cochran said, “The floor was heaved, and there’s a bow in the roof indicating structural damage somewhere.” The Northrops lost their home and the majority of their personal items. Rose was employed by the Dining Car Restaurant and Lounge so they have lost home as well as income.
Jim and Reta Knott, owners of the historic Williamson building, lost nearly everything in their appliance repair shop and second hand store as well as their personal belongings. Jim Knott estimates about $150,000 loss. The Knotts were also left homeless and went to stay in the Holiday Inn Express in Pullman with Red Cross helping with funding. The Knotts eventually left the area and the building was torn down as was two buildings next to it (the Oasis and a small building next to the Oasis). The theater building, next to the Oasis was also torn down at a later time leaving the block with just one original building from “old time” Palouse.
Reported in the February 29 issue of The Boomerang! newspaper, many roads were closed because of the flooding.
Landslides dumped mud and rocks and roads were washed out. One bridge was damaged according to Palouse District engineer Dave Brady (Boomerang 2/29/96)
The road into Laird Park campground (14 miles east of Potlatch) was closed. With the closure of the Palouse River Road it left no access to Strychnine Creek Road 768, Little Sand Road 292, Big Sand Road 381 and North Fork Palouse River Road 767.
Road 447 and other roads will be reopened after emergency repairs and the routes determined to be safe for travel, The Boomerang report said.
Where does Palouse now stand?
Twenty years after the record-breaking Flood of 1996, the City of Palouse has made amazing triumphs, not only recovering from the flood but surpassing all expectations. Bruce Baldwin, mayor at the time of the flood, showed much wisdom as he and the council quickly gathered essential information and started the process of helping the town recover. Meetings were conducted often to give information as well as gather ideas and bolster depressed community members.
Butch Smith took over the mayoral reigns followed by Michael Echanove taking the office, both continuing the process.
Coming into present day (2016) city, community and civic leaders have united in a major effort to not only recover but revitalize the town. Grants and donations have made it possible for the town to replace some downtown sewer lines, pavement and curbs adding handicap accessible ramps to the sidewalks. A small park (Heritage Park) with 24/7 public restrooms holds memorial benches, tree and sculpture along with beautiful, well maintained landscaping enjoyed by many who venture down the historical Main Street of this small town.
Most of the businesses have recovered and new ones have opened and flourished. Buildings have been shored up and made stable. The town has worked miracles on beautification keeping the “old time” image in mind during their planning. Citizens are pleased with all that has been accomplished since the flood and are often eager to let anyone know “this is the place to live.”
“Living in a small town…is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you…” – Joyce Dennys
The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does.
Kids in a small town can’t get away with much. If they are naughty, mom or dad usually hears about it before they get home.