Flood caught officials off guard

Photos by Geoff Crimmins/Daily NewsA car rests against Tractor Town Square on Wednesday on North Grand Avenue in Pullman. The car was pushed against the building by floodwater from Missouri Flat Creek.

Pullman city officials usually have 12 to 24 hours to prepare the city for potential flooding, but no such grace period was given Tuesday.

In total, according to the National Weather Service, 1.21 inches of rain fell Tuesday on already water-logged ground in Pullman. The result was flooding throughout the city and a torrent raging down Grand Avenue.

“This one was almost a flash flood,” Pullman Deputy Public Works Director Clayton Forsmann said.

While the extent of the damage won’t be known for some time, Tuesday’s flood reminded many of the historic flood of February 1996.

That was when the combination of unseasonably warm temperatures leading to massive snowpack melt, winds and severe rain caused creeks and rivers across eastern Washington and north Idaho to see near-record flooding. According to the National Weather Service, 3.54 inches of rain fell in five days in Moscow, and the National Guard was mobilized in Washington and Idaho.

NWS meteorologist Jeff Cote said the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport reported 1.21 inches of rain Tuesday, which is a record for the date of April 9. Moscow reported 1.42 inches of rain, but NWS data could not indicate if that was a record as well.

Flooding Cleanup

Jennifer Sorensen shovels mud away from Pioneer Insurance on Wednesday at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Stadium Way in Pullman. 

Cote said the rain over the Palouse was caused by an area of heavy convective precipitation, which created significant instability in the atmosphere. He said that instability increased the precipitation and made it more intense than the forecast predicted.

The NWS expects rain to continue through the weekend, but Cote did not anticipate precipitation levels would match that seen Tuesday, possibly saving the Palouse from additional flooding.

Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson signed a declaration of emergency for the city on Wednesday in response to Tuesday flooding. Johnson said doing so will allow the public works department to quickly access money it needs to repair infrastructure damaged by water. He said the Whitman County Commissioners will sign a declaration of emergency Monday.

Pullman officials are also in contact with the Washington State Emergency Management Division about the possibility of Gov. Jay Inslee declaring a state of emergency.

City Administrator Adam Lincoln said state liaisons are working with public works employees to determine if there is enough infrastructure damage and risk to pubic safety to qualify for state funds to help local businesses affected by the flood.

The rain caused Missouri Flat Creek to overflow into North Grand Avenue, much to the surprise of nearby businesses.

“It came out of nowhere,” said Cari Rushton, manager of the Mobil gas station on North Grand Avenue.

Rushton said she received a call Tuesday evening from someone saying the creek was almost cresting, and then shortly after that she found out the Mobil fuel pumps were damaged. That damage forced the station to remain closed Wednesday morning. She hopes to open the business today.

Across the street, the Tractor Town Square complex that houses Snap Fitness, Rolly’s, Kool Nails Design & Spa and Carnahan Chiropractic Clinic was also flooded. The damage was still apparent Wednesday morning. A vehicle upended by the floodwater was pinned on its side between the parking lot and the north side of the complex. Drying mud caked the floors inside the businesses and the parking lot outside.

Forsmann said Grand Avenue was closed from north of Stadium Way to Whitman Street as crews waited for the water to recede, which happened around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. At least one lane remained closed much of the morning as crews assessed damage.

Forsmann said the intersections at Whitman and State streets, as well as the one at State and Park streets, were closed during the night.

He also said the city monitored the South Fork Palouse River, which climbed until it plateaued around midnight. He said there were no breaches.

The Pullman Fire Department and public works worked together and used a city front-end loader to rescue people who were standing on tables inside a laundromat. First responders helped about a half dozen people to higher ground from Snap Fitness, Pullman Fire Marshal Chris Wehrung said Tuesday.

Pullman Fire Department Capt. Eric Reiber said between 20 and 24 people had to be evacuated from the area. There were no serious injuries, though one woman had a cut on her hand and the fire department responded to a someone with a diabetic problem at the Mobil station

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to akuipers@dnews.com.

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