Lawmakers Look to Help December Flood Victims

February 4, 2008

There’s silence in John Brunoff’s Washington dairy farm, except for the sound of a lone worker hosing an empty 5,000-gallon milk tank.

Just nine weeks ago, more than 270 cows filled this organic dairy farm with noisy activity. Then December’s floods left Brunoff’s farm more than 8 feet under water and killed 258 of his cows. Now, Brunoff is rebuilding.

“I miss the activity,” Brunoff said. “Being in a dairy farm with no cows, it’s not the nicest place to be.”

While people in southwest Washington recover from December’s devastating floods, lawmakers in Olympia are pushing through a package of bills aimed to help them get back on their feet, but some of the affected worry the state is more interested in protecting Interstate 5, which was flooded for days after the storms.

“Groups in the county are concerned that the state’s primary concern is to protect the freeway, and they’ll abandon us afterward,” said Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill.

More than 1,100 homes remain damaged. Debris and up to four feet of silt cover some farm fields in Lewis County, Averill said. Overall damages, he said, will top $100 million in the county.

Averill is concerned the state will continue backing a plan from the U.S. Corps of Engineers that would protect I-5 through Lewis County with levees. That plan was drawn up after floods in 1996. He wants the state to consider alternative methods, such as damming or building storage ponds on tributaries of the Chehalis River.

Meanwhile, lawmakers of both parties are pushing an immediate relief package, which includes tax breaks, money for housing, and the creation of an early warning system.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has earmarked $10 million out of the $50 million Housing Trust Fund.

“I live in Adna, and to see the destruction of that town, to see houses knocked off their foundations, it was overwhelming,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, who sponsored three of the relief bills. “The sales tax needs to move quickly, because people are buying now.”

The dispute about the U.S. Corps of Engineers plan will take longer to resolve, DeBolt added.

Farmers have been pleased with the response from state agencies, saying that the departments of Health, Agriculture and the Natural Resources helped haul away dozens of dead cows, and have plans to remove logs that rested on fields after the waters receded.

“This was massively devastating, but the state, public, and private outreach was just stunning,” said Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

But Dan Wood of the Washington Farm Bureau is more cautious about the Legislature taking action, especially when it comes to long-term solutions, saying lawmakers have stalled on flood solutions in the past.

“It’s too early to tell if the interest will turn into action,” Wood said. “A lot of people have been sympathetic and helpful, that only lasts for so long after a catastrophic event, and then you’re back to the same old risk.”

Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, will meet with representatives from Gregoire’s office and the U.S. Corps of Engineers to talk about the current levee plan next week.

“That plan in its entirety would not resolve the issues in Lewis County, it might actually create more problems than it solves,” Alexander said.

Around Adna, the recent snowfall covered mounds of mud with a white blanket. Barns and houses still bear the damage left by the water.

In total, more than 1,500 cattle were lost, more than 150 producers were affected, and damages might will be in the millions, according to Gregoire’s office.

In Brunoff’s dairy, mud is everywhere, even in electrical boxes. Most of his machinery was damaged. He estimates a loss of $650,000 with the death of his cows. He ended up selling the 14 cows that survived, and now plans to apply for an emergency loan from the federal government.

“With no cows, there’re not much cash flow,” Brunoff said.

The flood relief package bills are HB 2649, HB 3066, HB 3136, HB 3137 and HB 3138.

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