By MARK SAAL • Photos by BENJAMIN ZACK• Standard-Examiner
A year ago, a good chunk of Box Elder County was under water.
Today, the county’s recovery from the flooding of February 2017 is nearly complete. And apparently, that recovery includes county officials’ senses of humor.
“First off, if we had a vote we would not do that again,” said Mark Millett, Box Elder County emergency manager. “I think we all agree on that.”
For roughly three weeks late last winter, Feb. 7-27, Box Elder and Cache counties endured floodwaters that destroyed roads, seeped into basements and caused millions of dollars in damage.
According to Millett, the trouble started with a dam break in northeastern Nevada on Feb. 7. That same day, county officials were notified that the utility PacificCorp needed to increase the water being released from Cutler Dam — located about 13 miles northwest of Logan — from 2,500 cubic feet per second to 9,000 cubic feet per second.
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And then, on top of that, warmer weather began to melt a mountain snowpack that was anywhere between 200 and 400 percent of normal. The result was what is called “sheet flooding,” according to Millett.
“The snow was just melting so fast that the ditches couldn’t handle the runoff,” he said. “The water just came in sheets, moving from one field to the next. A section of the flooding front was three miles wide at one point.”
The county went through almost 50,000 sandbags at the time; at one point, the state sent in the Utah National Guard to help. And public works employees from as far away as Salt Lake County were brought in to man pumps and divert drainages in an attempt to move the water along to its final resting place in the Great Salt Lake.
Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, said the total damage estimate for last year’s February flooding was right around $3.95 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimburses at 75 percent of eligible costs, which is about $2.97 million, according to Dougherty.
Millett said most of the public property damage came in the form of washed-out dirt roads in the western part of the county. Thus far, Box Elder County has received more than $237,000 from FEMA — $123,000 to cover last February’s emergency response, and more than $81,000 for repair to damaged roads. Millett said more federal money will come in as the rest of the county’s roads are repaired and reported, “most likely during this coming summer repair season.”
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Initial estimates of flood damage from a year ago were much higher, according to Millett. However, by using county road crews for the repairs — rather than paying contractors — he says they were able to keep out-of-pocket costs down.
Millett says they’re still working on repairs for some of the far-flung roads in the county.
Dougherty said FEMA’s promised funding covers about 45 projects in Box Elder and Cache counties. Most of that money has yet to be disbursed.
“When you look at disaster recovery, it’s often a long process,” he said.
Dougherty points to the statewide flooding back in 2011. FEMA is just now finishing up paying for that disaster. Dougherty said it can take years for a local government entity to work through the application and procurement processes, and then work around the weather to get the work done.
“Typically, it’s about a five-year period working through all that,” Dougherty said. “Especially for a slow-rolling flooding event like this one.”
Last year’s damage to public infrastructure is only part of the story, according to Millett. That’s called “public assistance” — covering the costs to public infrastructure like roads and bridges. The other part of the story is what’s referred to as “individual assistance.”
Helping homeowners and private businesses get back on their feet isn’t something that comes from the government, Millett said.
“The reality is, it truly is not the government’s job to come in and make people whole,” he said.
Millett said residents of his county didn’t even come close to hitting the threshold FEMA requires to step in with this individual assistance. Mostly, because the federal government doesn’t consider a basement to be a part of a home.
“Here, we had a lot of water in basements, and that doesn’t count,” Millett said. “The threshold for individual assistance only kicks in when you get to the main level of a home, and even then the water has to be at least 18 inches up the wall.”
What’s more, FEMA requires at least 100 homes with this sort of “major damage.”
“In totality, we had very few homes that sustained damage on the main level,” Millett said.
Bill Pope is now fire chief for the Central Fire District in Jefferson County, Idaho. At the time of last year’s flooding, he was the disaster program manager for the Northern Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross, in Ogden. Pope says last year’s flood wasn’t the typical fast-moving rush of water that inundates houses. Rather, it was a case of snowmelt creating standing water that simply accumulated faster than it could naturally work its way down to the Great Salt Lake.
“There was never a situation where water gushed up over the sidewalk and into someone’s home,” he said. “All of the groundwater seepage was coming from the bottom up, finding its way into basements.”
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Michael Smauldon, current disaster program manager for the Northern Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross, said his organization opened 436 individual cases, or clients, during last year’s flooding. Of that, Smauldon said the Red Cross provided financial assistance to 59 clients. The remaining 377 cases were sourced out and helped by other charities through something called a MARC, or Multi-Agency Resource Center.
Pope describes the MARC as being “like a job fair — or a shopping mall — of assistance.” Nonprofit and faith-based volunteer organizations gather in one place to offer a sort of one-stop disaster recovery shopping experience for affected homeowners.
Jeannie M. Gamble is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity for Weber and Davis County. She is also on the local VOAD board, which stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Gamble says Habitat for Humanity helped or assisted more than 100 flooded homeowners in some capacity, and did “major assistance” on 32 homes.
“We bought over 400 sheets of Sheetrock, something like 125 pallets of insulation, and carpeting for — I want to say — 13 houses to completely recarpet their basements,” Gamble said. “That was all through donations and fundraising that VOAD did with United Way.”
Gamble said that in the aftermath of the flood, Habitat for Humanity had volunteers making the hour-and-a-half commute to the area every week until the end of August. They replaced some appliances, like washers and dryers, and one refrigerator, according to Gamble. New air conditioners and furnaces for two houses were installed, and another 21 home air systems were repaired.
Pope said hundreds of volunteers donated thousands of hours of service during and after the flood.
“We had somewhere around 3,600 hours spread between 150 people, and that’s just the Red Cross,” Pope said. “You also had Habitat for Humanity, Team Rubicon, the Southern Baptists — everybody was out there doing their thing. It was the same type of response you saw in Houston, just on a smaller scale.”
Millett said there were “a lot of great lessons learned” from last year’s flooding. Going forward, he says the county will be working with the agricultural community to develop a master flood plan.
“We’ll see if we can’t bolster the county’s irrigation system to help us in a flood,” Millett said. “We have this network of irrigation canals and ditches that gets smaller and smaller as they branch out. But the problem is, the water can’t run back uphill. We need to somehow build up the system bigger to carry away water in a flood.”
Pope said he learned a lot from last year’s flooding, too.
“We didn’t do everything right,” he admitted. “It’s all so easy now that we look back on it.”
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One of the lessons the Red Cross learned, according to Pope, was to employ volunteer service centers earlier in a disaster. Pope said representatives from a number of companies — including Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Orbital ATK — were offering volunteers to help in the early days of the flooding, but he just wasn’t ready for it yet.
“If we’d gotten our volunteer service center up and running earlier — when companies were saying, ‘What can we do to help?’ — we’d have had places to put them,” Pope said. “As it was, we had to tell them, ‘I don’t have anything for you right now’ — until two weeks later, when we thought, ‘Man, I wish I had all those volunteers now.’”
Gamble said she learned that people who have no connection to the victims in a disaster will come from great distances, just to help. She says that kind of attitude bodes well in the event of a massive disaster like a major earthquake.
“It’s nice to see on a smaller scale it can be done, and seeing people come together,” Gamble said. “It was reassuring for the future.”
Dougherty said Utahns are always ready to step up when disaster strikes.
“When I talk to my colleagues around the nation, they are so impressed with the culture of preparedness here in Utah,” he said. “And really, that’s why the preparedness message is so important. If you’re prepared, you’re ready to help your neighbors.”
Smauldon said he believes that last year is rapidly becoming a memory for those affected by the flooding.
“It took some time, but the recovery happened, and people got back to normal,” he said.