Published June 2022 in Salish Current
When flood waters receded enough for Liz Custer’s daughter to drive into Sumas last November, she began crying and found it difficult to stop.
Piles of people’s belongings — once safe and dry inside their homes — sat in wet mounds along city streets.
“It was so traumatic,” said Custer, a longtime Sumas resident and co-curator of the Sumas Historical Society and Museum, of last November’s devastating Nooksack River flood.
Seven months on, there are still signs of the flood’s destruction and power. Many homes still sit empty, some with high-water marks etched into their windows and walls. Railroad tracks running parallel to Cherry Street, on their way to Canada, show evidence of where gravel was once displaced beneath them.
The city is in recovery. The border is now back to some degree of normalcy after two years of pandemic-related closure, a new grocery store has opened and another is set to open later this year.
But the pace of recovery has been slower than most would like, and there are still worries and concerns for residents and local business owners as to what the future may hold.
Coming back, not yet normal
Mayor Bruce Bosch, a Sumas resident since 1987, estimates that about 80% of Sumas homes were flooded. Roughly 40% of the city’s 2021 population has not yet returned to their residences, he said.
On the street where Bosch lives, about half the homes are still vacant. City Hall is also still vacant and being renovated, with city staff either working from home or sharing office space in a large trailer sitting next to the flood-damaged building. The library and senior center are still closed.
“It was bad,” he said, estimating that the water level was about 2 feet higher than the last major Sumas flood, in 1990. (See “Devastated after flooding, north Whatcom County moves into recovery mode, Dec. 3, 2021, Salish Current.)
Some residents — particularly older ones — simply sold their flood-damaged homes and moved away, he said.
For local businesses, the recent re-opening of the border to nonessential traffic has created a modest uptick in business, but not nearly to pre-pandemic levels yet.
Former mayor Kyle Christensen, who stepped down at the end of 2021 and is now running for a 42nd District seat in Washington’s House of Representatives, said that anywhere from 25% to 50% of Sumas businesses get their revenue from Canadian border traffic.
Christensen said local business owners have told him that continuing pandemic-related border protocols for Canadians still seem to have many gun-shy about making cross-border trips.
“They’re thankful for who is coming across, but it’s not back to normal by any means until those regulations at the border lighten up,” he said.
Currently, fully vaccinated travelers entering Canada must provide proof of vaccination through the country’s ArriveCAN app within 72 hours of arriving at the border. Failure to do so subjects a traveler to possible quarantine, COVID-19 testing and a possible fine of $5,000. Mandatory random arrival testing for COVID-19 is also still being conducted at land-based entry into Canada.
Unvaccinated travelers — whether Canadian or not — face quarantine periods of up to two weeks or until they depart the country when entering or re-entering.
Although La Gloria market — a Whatcom County-centric Latin-inspired grocery store and restaurant — recently re-opened, and a new grocery store will soon erase one retail vacancy, most business owners are still reeling from last November. Bosch said local residents make up a solid customer base for many stores and restaurants, so their absence from town is felt. (See “Sumas, border town of boom and bust, stays hopeful,” Apr. 21, 2021, Salish Current)
Wendy Kildall, who with her husband, Rick, co-owns the Sumas Bob’s Burgers and Brew and its upstairs hotel, Sumas Mountain Lodge, said she is hoping that will eventually change. For now, things are slow.
“It seems very weird and eerie still,” she said. “The town just isn’t the same. One day you think, ‘okay, it’s coming back’. Today, Thursday? Dead.”
The restaurant only re-opened their main dining area on June 14, and is still waiting on long-delayed plumbing fixes to re-open their dining area restrooms. Staffing continues to be a challenge.
The interior of the restaurant doesn’t look like it did before the flood. The banquet room remains under renovation, and there are gaps in the dining area where booths once sat. The dining area’s previous wood flooring is gone, leaving bare concrete, although the bar area’s wooden flooring was salvaged.
When the flood hit, anywhere from 3 to 5 feet of water filled the building, Kildall said. The water flipped refrigerators and fryers, pushing everything in the back of the restaurant out the front. Cushions floated about tables and kegs busted out the glass of the front doors.
The water was so powerful it tipped over nearby sitting railroad cars and dislodged tracks, releasing ties that floated over to the restaurant property.
And there was mud. “That’s all we saw for weeks and weeks, clearing mud out of here,” Kildall said. She saw so much mud in the restaurant that she once grabbed a coffee mug from her home cupboard in Lynden and thought she saw mud on it.
Custer has experienced similar PTSD-type moments when she examines photos of the flood, or talks to people about it.
Though her home was elevated high enough to avoid any damage, her basement flooded when the pressure of water broke the door jamb of an exterior door.
“We had 4 feet of water in our basement,” she said. “We could hear our fridge and freezer down there floating around and bumping into the walls and the ceiling.”
Custer’s neighbors — a couple with three small children and four pets — are still living in a travel trailer on their property, and only last week finally got a contractor to begin renovation work on their flood-damaged home.
“All these people, they’re paying their mortgage, so they really can’t really afford to pay their mortgage and rent some place,” she said. “Everybody is grateful — nobody is complaining or anything — but it’s just really hard for people.”
Custer worries the dynamics of town will change, with older residents selling homes, former long-term renters gone and investors likely purchasing flood-damaged homes only to knock them down, build new ones and rent them out.
“If you don’t have stable people invested [in the city], it just becomes a transient community,” she said.
‘One blow after another’
When Custer and her husband were trapped in their home during the flood, she saw the carved wooden statue that had stood outside the museum floating down the street. It was several days before she could even visit the museum due to standing water.
“I knew the museum was in trouble at that point,” she said.
Some museum artifacts were destroyed, others were badly damaged and some escaped intact. Custer and her husband had moved everything up about 30 inches from where it sat before the flood hit, thinking it was likely a preventive measure that wouldn’t be needed.
Volunteers helped salvage what they could. At the moment, some recoverable artifacts are stored upstairs in the museum; some items are still sitting on tables in Custer’s basement; a family Bible and other objects were temporarily stored in containers in the Edaleen Dairy freezer for preservation.
She has no timetable for when the museum will re-open. The city owns the museum building the museum and has not yet renovated the interior. This, of course, follows nearly two years in which Canadian traffic — the bulk of the museum’s visitors — was nonexistent.
“It’s just been one blow after another, basically,” she said. “I guess we’ll just keep persevering.”
Overall, residents expressed a cautious optimism for normalcy to come — and unsettled concern about the next flood season. (See “Floods, fish and farming intersect in Nooksack Basin’s complex challenge, Dec. 22, 2021, Salish Current.)
Although Christensen is no longer mayor, he is now Flood Recovery Manager in the county’s emergency management division. He works with government agencies at the local, state and federal levels, as well as volunteer organizations such as Whatcom Long-Term Recovery, which is still providing disaster case management to those affected.
Planning is a big part of his job, and Christensen said that conversations are ongoing with local community leaders and officials about where to stage equipment, how to best inform people of flood threats and evacuations and what roads can be shut down to ensure motorists don’t make bad decisions that strand them.
“At this point, we don’t have any reason to believe that we’re not going to flood again, until we can do something flood prevention or flood control-wise,” he said.
Paula Harris, the county’s River and Flood Engineering Manager, said several dozen interested parties met in April as part of the county’s Floodplain Integrated Planning Reach team. Composed of federal, state and local agency representatives, local tribes and flood control experts, the group discussed a levee system that could protect communities such as Sumas and Everson from what happened last year.
That work, however, is just beginning.
The county could also adjust the flow split of the Nooksack River, but Harris points out any change in one direction will result in increased flow in the opposite direction — so what’s beneficial to some could be detrimental to others — and a split is unlikely to occur.
For now: elevation or buyout
In the nearer term, the county has implemented an elevation and buyout program to help those in designated floodways. The program uses sources of local, state and mostly federal funds to either elevate the homes of qualifying homeowners for increased flood protection, or offer them a buyout to leave their properties.
The county’s Natural Resources Program Manager, Gary Stoyka, said in a June 7 county council meeting that 727 letters were mailed to county property owners in the first round of the program, which has grant funding of $16 million. Ninety percent of that funding is federal, Harris said.
From those letters, 24 homeowners expressed buyout interest, and another 17 expressed elevation interest, Stoyka said. In Sumas, six properties are on the buyout list, and 14 on the elevation list. Fifty-two more properties of interest didn’t make the first funding cutoff, and will have to rely on the next round of grants, he added.
That, unfortunately, may be a while, as federal funding dispersal is notoriously slow.
Bosch said the city is working on determining the best places to stage emergency services in the event of future flooding, as well as passing out information on a “get ready, get set, go” type of evacuation system.
Though he is happy to see Sumas bouncing back — the rodeo grounds have a new grandstand and the Sumas Community Days celebration kicks off this weekend — he remains on edge about what may happen next winter.
“There’s this lurking anxiety,” he said, recalling a comparison a local resident said in a recent conversation with him. “If your house burns down, everything’s gone and then you start to rebuild. The chances of having another fire are not very likely. But with a flood, the threat of what you’re going through right now is just around the corner.”