Idaho Floodwaters Force Rescues, Travel Warnings

Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Ulmer of Kooskia reportedly jumped in the rushing water to help rescue people. Two men and one woman were hauled to dry ground.

by Kathy Hedberg, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho / April 11, 2019

(TNS) - Four people in the Stites area were rescued by helicopter after their home was inundated by floodwaters early Tuesday, as spring rains drenched the region.

“We called the National Guard, and they flew a couple of big choppers up here and picked them up,” Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings said.

Two men and one woman were hauled to dry ground, the sheriff said, and another woman was taken to Syringa General Hospital in Grangeville.

Giddings could not immediately provide the names of the people involved.

Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Ulmer of Kooskia reportedly jumped in the rushing water to help rescue the people, said Jerry Zumalt, Idaho County emergency management officer. Zumalt characterized Ulmer as “amazing” and said Ulmer narrowly escaped danger himself.

“He did assist and got himself out of there,” Zumalt said. “I’m sure it was fast water.”

The Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee declared a state of emergency, as heavy rains swelled many streams and creeks in the area to the tops of their banks, and threatened to flood homes around Lapwai and Kamiah.

Rebecca Miles, spokeswoman for the executive committee, said volunteers were called on to place sandbags around homes threatened by floodwaters and to help with stream work to divert water from the homes.

“We go by the LIP (life, incident stabilization and property conservation) protocol,” Miles said. “So we are making sure that anybody that needs evacuated is evacuated. We have some homes with elders and people who are disabled, and some of them have always lived in that flood plain.”

By noon, the tribe had opened the Pi-Nee-Waus Community Center in Lapwai and the Wa-A’Yas Community Center in Kamiah for possible evacuations and was advising people to be prepared to leave their homes in an emergency. Sandbags were also being made available at those centers.

Etta Axtell at the Wa-A’Yas center said Tuesday no evacuees had come in Tuesday, but the place was ready for those needing respite from placing sandbags or to get out of the storm.

“We are here and available, and we do have some food here for sandbaggers and homeowners,” Axtell said.

Tribe spokeswoman Kayeloni Scott said volunteers continued to work throughout the afternoon in the Lapwai area, but so far no one had been evacuated.

“... There are a couple of homes we’re keeping an eye on in the high flood zone,” Scott said.

The American Red Cross of Idaho opened a shelter at Life Center Pentecostal Church, 44323 U.S. Highway 12, in Kamiah, for people in Idaho and Lewis counties.

Church volunteers are helping run the center, and the Red Cross will assist with supplies. Services are free, and no reservations are necessary, the Red Cross said in a news release.

Floodwaters on the South Fork of the Clearwater River at Stites hit a record high, cresting at 10.79 feet shortly before noon before tipping downward to below action stage. The highest recorded water level before that was 10.3 feet in 1964. Flood stage is 8 feet.

Other rivers and streams in the area stayed below action level, with the exceptions of the Grande Ronde River at Troy, Ore., which hit 11.7 feet, just 5 inches shy of the 12-foot major flood stage, and Paradise Creek at the University of Idaho in Moscow, which rose to 8.25 feet, 1 foot lower than minor flood stage. A flood watch was issued by the city of Moscow, where sandbags were made available for residents to combat localized flooding.

The Idaho County commissioners issued a county disaster declaration, Zumalt said, and will try to obtain some state and federal assistance to repair road damage around the county.

The city of Kooskia also issued a disaster declaration.

“We need damage assessments on roads — Thorn Springs, Fort Misery and Glenwood,” Zumalt said. “There was extensive damage.”

The city of Stites put out sandbags, and Kooskia also experienced some damage. Zumalt said a representative of the state Office of Emergency Management was on scene Tuesday helping assess the situation.

Jeff Kitsmiller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Missoula, said temperatures in the region are expected to be a little cooler for the next few days, but more rain and snow is expected, which could keep the streams and rivers near capacity.

“So we still have a fair amount of rain in the forecast — upwards of three-quarters of an inch of rain for a lot of that area,” Kitsmiller said.

Besides the South Fork, “other rivers are staying pretty tame at this point. We’ve been looking at Orofino Creek. It’s rising but still below any concern. The Clearwater River at Orofino gets pretty close to action stage, and the forecast is that it will be really high but not a concern for flooding. The Lochsa can handle more water; it’s rising but nothing drastic.”

Kitsmiller said the Little Salmon River near Riggins also is running near the action stage, but there’s nothing in the forecast indicating it will rise beyond that point.

Rainfall in the area since Monday, he said, has ranged from .41 of an inch at Lewiston to about an inch elsewhere.

The rain that has been falling since Saturday, he added, is causing some instability in the landscape, with mudslides and rock falls reported around the region.

The Idaho Transportation Department reported a rock fall between Cherry Lane Road and Amos Beach Road 17 miles west of Orofino on U.S. Highway 12. Drivers were advised to use extreme caution.

U.S. Highway 12 was closed because of a mudslide 5 miles east of Orofino to No Kid Lane near Kamiah. Travelers were advised to use an alternate route.

State Highway 13 between Wall Creek Road and Battle Ridge Road near Stites was closed earlier in the day because of flooding but reopened later.

U.S. Highway 162 between Tram Road 7 miles west of Kamiah and U.S. Highway 12 at Kamiah also was closed because of a landslide.

Drivers in other areas were warned to watch for surface water hazards and to drive with extreme caution.

The Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Office reported Tuesday there had been some minor flooding along U.S. Highway 95 between Lapwai and Culdesac and between Webb Road and Garden Gulch Road.

Officials are monitoring the water level at the Winchester Lake dam and were releasing water coming into the lake, which accounted for the higher water levels in Lapwai Creek.

The sheriff’s office warned travelers of the dangers of driving in standing water and to stay away from swollen creeks.

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.

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