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Flood Protection Tactics Yielding Mixed Results in Wash.

Instead of sandbags, a nearly 2,000-foot-long temporary wall of boxes made of chain-link, lined with fabric and filled with gravel, was placed between the highway and the railroad tracks for flood protection.

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(TNS) - Just outside Sedro-Woolley, Skagit County Dike District 12 tried something new during the November flooding.

The first-time effort had mixed results during the rapid onset of the flooding. It also received a mixed reaction from area residents, with some complaining that it sent more water in their direction.

For some who live in vulnerable areas along the river, this marked their first serious flood. It wasn’t a first for Dike District 12 Operations Manager Dan Lefeber.

As the forecast for major Skagit River flooding continued to shift in the days leading up to the Nov. 14-15 crest between expected heights of 37 to 39 feet, Lefeber said he lost sleep out of concern for residents and infrastructure.

In the decades since Lefeber got involved in local flood protection efforts, only a few major floods — those higher than 32 feet — have overtopped the Skagit River’s banks. The biggest ones came in 1990, 1995 and 2003.

Lefeber said during major floods an area of particular concern within Dike District 12’s jurisdiction is a section of Highway 20 just west of Sedro-Woolley city limits, where the roadway dips and the landscape is not protected by a levee.

Here, where agricultural fields sprawl toward the Skagit River south of the highway, and PeaceHealth United General Medical Center and a few dense rural neighborhoods sit north of the road, Lefeber said Dike District 12 was historically unable to build a levee along the river because of landowner opposition.

In an effort to protect the highway linking east and west Skagit County and the hospital serving the area, the diking district had before past major floods placed a wall of hand-stacked sandbags just south of the road, along BNSF Railway tracks that are not used during times of flooding.

“There are minuscule routes available to them, and people need to get home, get food, possibly get to the hospital,” Lefeber said of the highway’s importance.

This time, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the sandbag training offered to volunteers during Skagit County’s Flood Awareness Week, the diking district tried something new.

Instead of sandbags, a nearly 2,000-foot-long temporary wall of boxes made of chain-link, lined with fabric and filled with gravel was placed between the highway and the railroad tracks. Those boxes are called the Hesco method, after the company that produces the cage-like materials.

The Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District loaned the materials to Dike District 12.

“Hescos are typically used because they are quicker to put in place and require less labor to install,” Army Corps spokesperson Scott Lawrence said in an email.

For example, he wrote, it could take 100 to 150 sandbags to fill a single Hesco unit. That means the 1,320 Hesco units the Army Corps dispatched to Skagit County in November may have replaced up to 198,000 sandbags, which are put together by hand instead of filled by truck.

According to Army Corps records, including studies and news releases, the federal agency has deployed Hescos during weather emergencies throughout the U.S. for many years.

The corps used Hescos in Western Washington flooding in 2015 and trained flood responders in Eastern Washington on how to use the materials this past April.

“Responders practiced connecting and setting up a Hesco barrier, which can be used as a semi-permanent structure when flood fighters need to cover a large area rapidly,” a news release states.

In Skagit County, as it became clear in early November that major flooding was on its way and that Dike District 12 needed to act fast, Lefeber said he scrambled to arrange a sandbagging or Hesco-building plan for the vulnerable segment of Highway 20 and its surroundings.

When flooding exceeds 34 feet, he said, the river is known to send water across the fields toward the highway. While there’s nothing the diking district can do to protect homes to the south, placing a barrier along the railroad tracks can protect the highway, hospital and dozens of homes to the north.

“We’re trying to help the community as a whole ... We think it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not perfect,” Lefeber said.

The goal of building temporary protection there is to divert the water west, where it can drain into Gages Slough.

“We try to divert water ... force it to go into the slough and through Burlington,” Lefeber said. “It’s all about trying to make the water go into the slough right off the bat rather than let it meander across the road, block traffic and make all kinds of problems.”

The effort wasn’t entirely successful.

“We weren’t able to get it constructed in time,” Lefeber said of the wall.

Despite coming together more quickly than a sandbag wall would have, about 400 feet of the Hesco barrier had not yet filled with water-blocking gravel by the time floodwaters reached the site. Water still poured onto the highway, leading to its dayslong closure.

“Mother Nature has got a lot of power, and it’s kind of out of our control,” Lefeber said.

Erosion along the Cascade Trail south of the Hesco wall, though, is evidence that the water that was blocked ran toward Gages Slough as intended.

Like its mixed success, the reaction of the surrounding community has been mixed as well.

“Some people are unhappy because we did it, and some people are unhappy because we were unsuccessful doing it. We’re kind of in a no-win situation,” Lefeber said.

Those unhappy with the Hesco wall include six-year Lafayette Road resident Amee Barber and four-year Sterling Road resident Travis Halterman, neither of whom had witnessed a major flood before.

Both were startled to see the construction of the Hesco barrier begin on Nov. 14. They see the dike district’s effort as harmful to the rural Sterling community between the highway and the river just southwest of Sedro-Woolley.

“They started stacking these Hesco containers ... to contain the water to our neighborhood,” Halterman said. “I’ve had I would guess $75,000 in structural damage and probably $25,000 in personal property loss.”

Barber said while she understands she lives in the floodplain, and some damage to her home was inevitable, she suspects the placement of the Hesco wall increased the flood levels — and therefore the damage — in the Sterling area and on Lafayette Road in particular.

“There are a lot of people who live on this road that are adversely impacted by the (district’s) decision to build that wall,” she said.

Lefeber said he feels for Sterling residents and all of those affected by the recent flooding. But he stands by the decision aimed at protecting important infrastructure, and said devising a different plan for future flood protection will require a collaborative effort.

“What we hope comes out of all this is that we can work together collectively — city, county, dike district, state Department of Transportation, neighborhood — to come up with a satisfactory solution that would be more permanent so we don’t have to do this crazy emergency action that is so difficult to get done in time,” Lefeber said.

“I hope the community comes together and finds a true solution.”

For now, the Hesco barrier will likely remain in place for the duration of the flood season.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199,, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH,


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