After a major flood 11 years ago and an even deeper flood two weeks ago, it has dawned on the people of a former mill town that they must rebuild with this question in mind: How deep next time?
That there will be a flood next time, and soon, seems in little doubt in Vernonia, a Coast Range town of about 2,400 people recovering from tandem storms in early December.
Up to a foot of rain caused floodwaters from two streams to rise within a matter of hours, damaging about 300 homes, wrecking schools, temporarily closing businesses and raising uncertainty about the future of a place trying like many in the Northwest to find a way of life to replace cutting timber and milling lumber.
The region's winters, once snowy, have become warmer and rainier, which many blame on global climate change. A storm in 1996 that caused major flooding was billed as a once-in-500-years event. So the 2007 storms shocked the town and convinced many that this is the wave of the future.
"I don't think this is a 500-year flood," said Brad Curtis, who runs a small high-tech plant called Photo Solutions that makes film and glass discs that help computers control electric motors. "I think this is going to happen every 20 to 30 years."
For Gordon Smith, co-owner of the town's grocery, the answer to the question of how deep next time is 4 feet.
In 1996, his Sentry Supermarket took 14 inches of water. Two weeks ago, he said, it took 24 inches, damaging at least $100,000 in goods, mostly uninsured.
Moving, he said, is out: A new building would cost $4.5 million to $5 million, about a year's business volume.
So he and his associates worked about a scheme for one-way gates in the drains &
that's how the floodwater got in &
gates and sandbags at the entrances, and pumps in the storeroom to eject water that seeps into the concrete block structure.
That should cost about $75,000, he said, and protect against 4 feet of water outside.
Just in case, he said, the business will buy flood insurance.
For Alice Zimmerman, the answer about the next flood is — inches. That's how high the water rose in the building where she's moving her "Pretty Gifts Things" shop.
She figures she can stand that much, given that the 1926 theater building she was leaving Monday took — feet from Rock Creek, just across the street. She said the walls buzz when the circuit breakers are reset, and she expects town officials to "red tag" the building as unsafe.
Tracie Wolfe isn't sure about the answer for her family. Her one-story house filled to a depth of 2 feet. As it is fumigated, repaired and refurbished, she will live in a 30-foot trailer for the next three to four months with her husband and their three children, ages 7, — and 19 months.
"Right now we just want to get this done, and maybe some day move out of town," to higher ground, she said.
The family has also applied for aid to raise their house.
After the 1996 flood, said County Commissioner Tony Hyde, about 100 houses in Vernonia were elevated &
the structures jacked up and put on higher foundations. Most, though not all, came through the 2007 flood unscathed, he said.
Hyde, mayor in 1996, said the town won't fold in the face of a second flood.
Vernonia's lumber mill closed decades ago, and it has suffered along with the rest of the Northwest as the timber industry consolidated and mechanized its mills and as environmental restrictions reduced cuts on federal lands.
Although some logging trucks still rumble through Vernonia, passing shops such as the one promises "gifts, antiques and truffles," Hyde said the town is now predominantly a bedroom community for Portland and such employers as Intel, with a plant in nearby Hillsboro.
Help and promises have been streaming into the town. On Monday morning, an Oregonian with a top job in the U.S. Commerce Department, Sandy Baruah, stopped to listen to Hyde and other community leaders.
He said the Economic Development Administration could help the town plan its future and perhaps assist in infrastructure projects to attract capital and development.
"We're not going to parachute in with a big check, but we could be of help," Baruah said.
That perked the interest of entrepreneur Curtis, who said Vernonia could use better Internet connections to attract engineers who could work for Intel without the daily commute.
But first, he said, the town's three schools have to be rebuilt and replaced, to attract families. "If you want to keep those degreed engineers, the schools are key," he said.
For Curtis, the answer to how deep next time is at least 36 inches.
That's the height of tables in his 2-year-old, 4,000-square foot steel manufacturing buildings. Before he was evacuated in a boat, some of the equipment and a lot of the raw materials were put on tables, and much was saved &
at least enough to fill a few orders from top customers.
"Three or four more inches, and it would have been gone," Curtis said.
One storm, then another