Last December, a combination of rain, snowmelt and abnormally high tides — or king tides — hit Whidbey Island, flooding parks, businesses and homes.
During a recent meeting with county commissioners, Emergency Management Deputy Director Eric Brooks described the king tide as “outstanding compared to others.” The abnormally large size resulted from a combination of the gravitational pull of a king tide, wind and the lowest barometric pressures the area had seen in a long time.
The event left many residents afraid of the next flood, and in light of these concerns, Island County commissioners and staff members discussed ways residents can protect their homes from king tides and what the county can do to help.
At the workshop meeting, Brooks said that though a big king tide is expected to hit Whidbey’s shores between Jan. 11 and Jan. 20, 2024, residents should also expect king tides to occur between November and February, which is why prevention is important.
The most important thing residents should do, Brooks said, is make sure their insurance covers damages caused by king tides, as homeowner’s insurance does not cover floods. Then they should apply for permits to build permanent protections.
Furthermore, residents should stay informed by reading flooding prevention and response guidelines on the county’s Department of Emergency Management’s website and by staying up to date through the department’s social media accounts.
Residents are responsible for developing their flood response plan and getting their own sandbags — but if needed, the department can provide some bags.
In case of a flooding event affecting a resident with no financial means who was left without a place to stay, the county can help them find shelters through partners like churches or the Red Cross.
Brooks said that last year the county couldn’t qualify for small business administration loans or assistance through the individual assistance major disaster declaration. On the other hand, it was able to secure funds for seven community members from a state-sponsored individual assistance program, which is for low-income and disabled residents. The county paid these residents and was entirely reimbursed by the state.
In 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed Island County on probation with the National Flood Insurance Program, which meant the county faced possible suspension from the program for not complying with the Flood Insurance Protection Act.
Since then, the county has been working to get properties located on the floodplain to comply with FEMA in order to lift the probation hold on the county for granting permits to non-complying projects. Now, the probation is expected to be lifted soon as there is only one property left that needs to be in compliance, Brooks said during the meeting.
While this is good news, it begs the question of how strict the county should be with its permitting process when members of the building and development community have been complaining about the process being too long and restrictive.
Commissioner Jill Johnson expressed frustration over this dilemma, questioning why the government should use taxpayer money to help residents who chose to build a house by the water.
Restrictive county code language was another concern addressed during the meeting.
Commissioner Melanie Bacon said she was particularly concerned with the residents living in the Mutiny Bay area, where a neighborhood was granted permits to build heavy armoring and two adjacent ones were not.
Bacon recommended changing the section in the county code that pertains to building hard armoring protections to make it less restrictive and consistent with other jurisdictions and the state.
One of the county code standards to meet in order to build hard armoring solutions is the threat of erosion within three years, which some areas do not meet. Other neighboring counties, Bacon said, have less strict requirements.
Furthermore, the code only takes erosion into consideration, not flooding. Because flooding can occur without erosion, only a section of the Mutiny Bay neighborhood could qualify for heavy armoring permits as they were found to be affected by erosion. The rest of the neighborhood can either apply for emergency permits that provide temporary solutions (which generally leads to many last-minute applications), or regular permits to build soft armoring, which Bacon said most don’t want.
Though soft armoring is the most environmentally conscious option, many residents believe heavy armoring is the most effective protection against flooding.
In an interview, Bacon — who is the commissioners’ representative on the Marine Resources Committee — acknowledged the negative impacts of heavy armoring on the environment but also sympathized with the residents.
“It’s really hard to have to listen to crying people because their home is being destroyed and the county isn’t doing anything to help them,” she said. “I think that having our code at least be consistent with other jurisdictions seems to me like the least we could do.”
Bacon said she would like the county code to allow heavy armoring for residences that cannot be protected from flooding by a mere soft armor solution.
Another area that concerns Bacon is the neighborhood near the Greenbank Beach and Boat Club, where residents have been complaining about a failing dike, owned by the club, that has caused their homes to flood.
The residents argue that the county is in part responsible for this issue, but Bacon said otherwise. In the late 1990s, the county entered into an abutter’s agreement with the club to provide equipment to fix the dike. However, the agreement specified that the county was not responsible for maintenance. Residents also argued that the county should be held liable as there is a county road that goes by the dike, making flooding worse, but Bacon said water flows into their homes simply as a result of gravity.
Again, Johnson said the burden to fix the problem should fall upon the parties directly involved, rather than taxpayers, and that it should be resolved with a lawsuit.
“You chose to live in an area where you couldn’t control how the water was hitting your home,” she said. “I’m sympathetic. But I didn’t make that choice, and neither did your government.”
Bacon wants to help the neighborhood by coming up with a solution with the club, which could mean another abutter’s agreement for the county to provide materials for repair work, but the decision is up to the club. Another suggestion she made was the creation of a diking district run by the neighborhood.
The commissioners agreed they would complete the Shoreline Master Plan by the end of the year before focusing on code revisions. Changing the code, Johnson said, would require the county to coordinate with FEMA and the Department of Ecology and that might take as long as nine months to reach completion.