A little bit of rain can’t stop islanders

Diana Aiello and Joann Sample exhibit the spirit of true Northwesterners.

After enjoying a lunch of Thai food in downtown Oak Harbor Thursday, they started puddle-jumping across Pioneer Way to do some shopping.

At the midway point, Sample pulled up her hood to guard against the gusting south wind, then the pair darted to the partial safety of an overhanging awning which poured rain water toward the gutter.

“We’re eating and shopping,” Aiello laughed when asked what they were doing outside on such a wet, blustery day. “Is there anything else?”

Wet feet didn’t stop them from making their rounds of the downtown shops, and they expressed no concern about the constant rain that has marked the early days of 2006. In fact, both were hoping this region would set the record for the most consecutive days of rain set back in 1953.

“I haven’t seen it like this in a long time,” said Sample, who has lived on Whidbey Island for many years. “I hope we do (set the record).” A dry day Sunday in Seattle ended the rainy day streak short of the 33-day record, but rain resumed Monday.

It was obvious that many other islanders weren’t so keen on venturing into the elements during lunch hour Thursday. Other than a few people ducking into and out of restaurants, only Aiello and Sample appeared to be taking a wet stroll along the storefronts.

Jill Schacht of the Casual House clothing store has spent some 40 years observing shopping trends in downtown Oak Harbor, both as a kid growing up in her parents’ store and more recently as store manager. She said the combination of rain and the time of year means business isn’t very good.

“I think a little, but it’s hard to know,” Schact said when asked if the incessant rain was impacting shopping. “January is always the slowest month.”

Schacht is holding out hope that an appearance by old Sol will eventually stir the shopping instincts of rain-shy islanders. “Sunshine always makes people think there’s a reprieve and they may need spring clothes after all,” she said.

Rain is slowing the construction industry as well as retail shops on Whidbey Island.

Jim Sykora, a designer for Oak Harbor-based Yonkman Construction, said construction workers are carrying on as best they can. “Rain usually won’t bring construction to a complete halt,” he said. “The worst conditions we fight is the mud.”

Yonkman has more than a dozen projects in progress on the island, none of which has been halted by the rain. Sykora said framing buildings is harder when it’s wet, but work goes on. Heaters and moisture gauges can be used to make sure the wood gets dried out later. “It’s not the optimal time to build,” he said. “Our people are waiting for an opening in the weather to pour concrete and put roofs on.”

Even concrete workers are getting as much done as they can in the rain. Lang Brothers Inc., concrete contractors, is busy despite the weather, said Debra Lang. “We’re still going like crazy, lots of houses and commercial projects,” she said. Lang employees work on Whidbey Island as well as in the Skagit Valley.

Lang said the wet weather mostly affects flatwork pours, forcing schedule adjustments or the installation of moisture barriers. “Flatwork can’t get rained on while pouring,” she said. “There are ways to keep going but it kind of puts a kink in things.”

Island County has been spared the extensive flooding shown on TV elsewhere in the Puget Sound area, from Mount Vernon to Olympia.

There are no rivers on the island, and 13-foot tides recorded early this month were not accompanied by high winds so flooding was minimal. The road in front of Nichols Brothers in Freeland, for example, was partly covered with water for a few mornings.

Bill Oakes, Island County’s public works director, said the main concern here is mud slides as the ground gets saturated with water. “We haven’t had any significant slides yet,” he said Thursday. “But slides can occur weeks after the rain, so we’re keeping an eye on things.” The most slide-prone areas are along Driftwood Way on Central Whidbey and the Scatchet Head area of South Whidbey.

For those with foresight, like Island County hydrogeologist Doug Kelly, heavy winter rains contribute to a summer without water shortages in areas served by ground water. And on Whidbey Island, that’s everywhere but the City of Oak Harbor and NAS Whidbey.

Kelly said rainwater can turn to groundwater in a matter of days or weeks if the soil is shallow sand or gravel. If it’s deep glacial till or clay it can take “tens of years,” he said. “But it gets there sooner or later.”

About 25 percent of the rain that falls on Whidbey Island becomes groundwater said Kelly, citing a USGS study. The rest runs into Puget Sound or evaporates. On average, 5.7 inches of rain seeps into the ground each year.

Rainfall totals on Whidbey Island vary widely, with South Whidbey getting much more rain than Central and North Whidbey. Five-year rainfall averages from WSU Extension records show Oak Harbor and Coupeville with 22.5 inches, Greenbank and Freeland 25, Langley 32 and Clinton 35.

“It generally increases as you head south, and by time you hit the south-end it’s nearly double,” Kelly said.

All that groundwater means Whidbey Islanders can survive a few dry summers without severe water shortages. Who knows, in 2010 islanders might be thrilled that it rained so often back in January of ‘06.

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