Torrents of water from a Pineapple Express rainstorm has irreparably damaged two bridges over Whatcom Creek on the edge of downtown Bellingham, but city parks suffered little long-term damage and recent flood-control efforts in key locations kept roads open and likely saved dozens of homes from flooding, city officials said.
Officials from the Public Works and Parks departments described damage from the storm during an online City Council committee hearing Monday afternoon, Nov. 22.
“The full extent of damage is not yet known,” Mayor Seth Fleetwood told the council.
Councilman Gene Knutson was astonished at the storm’s intensity.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said at the meeting.
Councilwoman Lisa Anderson said flooding on Iowa Street near the northbound Interstate 5 on- and off-ramps — a low-lying area that’s often submerged in heavy rain — was the worst she’d ever seen.
Chad Shulhauser, assistant director of Public Work’s engineering section, said Bellingham engineers have been working on a solution with the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“We’re going to continue to work on that and see what we can do,” he told the council.
Atmospheric river damages
Whatcom County officials said last week that they expect damages will total $7 million to $10 million from the storm, an “atmospheric river” that dumped 5.57 inches of rain at Bellingham International Airport over less than 72 hours from Nov. 13-15.
At the city’s Post Point treatment plant, nearly 5 inches of rain was measured in 38 hours on Nov. 14-15, Shulhauser said.
Normal monthly rainfall for the entire month of November in Bellingham is 5.2 inches, according to National Weather Service data.
Rain fell nearly every day for two weeks before the storm, including a smaller atmospheric river storm Nov. 11-12.
“The ground was saturated and the creeks already had no place to go — and that was before we got dumped on,” Shulhauser said at the meeting.
Whatcom Creek was flowing at 1,200 cubic feet per second at the height of the storm, against a normal 200 cfs, he said.
Current creek flow stands at 700 cubic feet per second.
Bellingham bridge failures
Logs, rocks, mud and other debris surging downstream at a breakneck rate struck the bridge on James Street south of Ohio Street, shifting its pilings, Shulhauser said.
A bridge on Meador Street west of Humboldt Street “is a failing bridge” with temporary supports in place before the storm.
Both bridges are closed indefinitely and had been listed for repair or replacement soon. Federal funding was ensured, he told the council.
Drivers were being detoured on Humbolt Street through the York neighborhood.
Bellingham Public Schools spokeswoman Dana Smith told The Herald in an email that the bridge closures diverted school bus routes to Lincoln Street east of the bus barn, which is at James and Meador streets.
Public Works Department spokeswoman Amy Cloud told The Bellingham Herald on Monday that the bridges were built in 1936 and rebuilt in 1962.
Some 6,700 cars and trucks use the James Street bridge daily, and 3,700 travel over the Meador Avenue bridge, Cloud reported.
They’d been scheduled for replacement in 2023 at a cost of $4.5 million each, Cloud said in an email.
“Now we may need to move those schedules up,” Shulhauser said.
In addition, a bridge on Rainier Avenue in the lower South neighborhood washed out, leaving five homes accessible only by a temporary footbridge.
Further examination of the bridges will have to wait until Whatcom Creek flow subsides and Whatcom County bridge inspectors are available, Cloud said.
‘There were excellent results’
There were success stories too — especially recent projects that used the city’s new stormwater impact fees and those that returned developed areas closer to their natural state:
▪ Some 160 homes in the Happy Valley neighborhood were saved from flooding by the recent “daylighting” of Padden Creek, which had been an underground culvert along Old Fairhaven Parkway, he said.
▪ Also beneficial was last year’s restoration of Squalicum Creek, which drained Bug Lake but returned the creek to its original course near the intersection of Birchwood Avenue, Orchard Drive and Squalicum Parkway.
“That roadway did not close and we still maintained access to the hospital,” Shulhauser said.
Padden Creek was channeled into a brick tunnel to drain swampland for the Great Northern Railroad, according to the city’s website.
“There were excellent results,” said Councilman Michael Lilliquist. “Those new natural, broader floodplains really worked.”
That changed with a $2.8 million “daylighting” project in 2015, according to Herald reporting.
Renee LaCroix, assistant director of Public Work’s natural resources section, said such massive storms are fueled by climate change.
“We’re going to continue to be challenged by big events like this,” LaCroix told the council.