When the rain started falling on December 2, 2007, Lonny Shilter expected a typical Washington State thundershower. The forecast was for rain but not as much as fell in a February 1996 storm, which caused flooding in Shilter’s neighborhood.
But as rain continued to fall, the river started to pour over its banks, and Shilter and his wife started to worry about their neighbors down the road who were hit hard by the 1996 flood.
With the road acting as a levy between their dairy and the river, they went down to help their neighbor secure his feed and equipment.
“There was no warning,” says Shilter, an organic dairyman with 200 cows in Lewis County. “Everything coming to us from the radio was telling us that this wasn’t going to be as bad as the 1996 flood.”
After helping his neighbor load feed into a truck to protect it from the heavy rain, Shilter noticed water rising over the road and onto the dairy.
“We realized that, no, this is going to be worse than the 1996 flood, and we started into a frenzy of trying to get everything as high as we could,” Shilter says.
He headed back to his dairy and began rushing his calves out of their hutches which were filled with knee-deep water. However, once all the calves were moved to higher ground, the water had risen to nearly knee-deep there, too. So the Shilters moved all their animals to the parlor, where most of their livestock remained safe throughout the storm.
“You don’t realize how cold the water is. You’re numb both physically and mentally. You are just in a frenzy. You can’t really think or imagine because there are so many things that need to get done,” Shilter says.
One of the last things the Shilters did on their dairy before heading to their house was chain down their propane tanks.
By the time they got to the dairy office, the room already had water in it. They frantically tried to move their pedigrees and calf registration papers to the tops of cabinets and shelves in an attempt to save the documents. The Shilters were limited in the time they had because the water outside was rising fast.
“In our office there is a window about two feet off the ground and there was about a foot of water above it. So there was about three feet of water in front of our dairy at this point,” Shilter says.
It was 2:30 p.m. when the Shilters left the office to wait it out in their house, leaving whatever couldn’t be secured to the mercy of the rising flood. They were still unsure of how high the water would get.
“Once you think your animals are safe and they will be okay, you try to get as high as you can and wait it out, and hopefully you are high enough,” Shilter says. “My neighbor downstream, who lost the majority of his herd, he waited it out in his house, and the only thing exposed was the top story of his house. The bottom story was full of water. I can’t even imagine how that would be.”
The Shilters lost 15 of their calf hutches, six calves and countless other equipment on their dairy.
The widespread flooding left many people stranded on their rooftops and without a home. The Washington State Emergency Management team rescued more than 433 people, most from their rooftops, in the first day of the flood and the morning after. The American Red Cross had 1,204 people spend a night or multiple nights in its shelters and served 19,191 meals. More than 60 roads were closed by the flood, leaving entire communities stranded to wait out the storm. Lewis and Grace Harbor Counties were hardest hit.
Shilter says the water crested at about 7 p.m. that night, but they had to wait until morning to see what the damage was. He and his wife had a long night, hoping for the best.
The next morning, citizens in the community and people around the country opened their eyes to the awesome power of nature; homes were flooded, roofs were blown off and rivers of silt covered streets and fields. Three rivers swelled to record size, far exceeding the 1996 flood, and swallowed animals, houses and even swept away people in its wake. The large amounts of rain also caused landslides that crushed homes and even claimed a man’s life. Avalanches in the mountains are blamed for five known deaths.
As for the dairymen in the area, many lost large portions of their herds and most of their feed. Some parlors and barns collected 6 to 7 inches of silt and debris on their floors, making milking almost impossible. Many producers are not going to be back to business until February, and even then they will not be at full milk production for some time.
“I hesitate to guess, but there is probably thousands of tons of baled silage that were lost,” says Jay Gordon, president of Washington State Dairy Federation. “One farmer lost 650 to 800 bales in her field that either drifted and/or got water in them and rotted. Most of the silage in the dairymen’s pits are junk. When you get a couple inches in a silage pit, it’s no big deal. When you get 8-10 feet of water in them, it’s an ugly site. If you count baled silage and pit silage, it’s easily in the thousands of tons lost.”
As for farmers in the area, some estimate it will be a year or more before they are able to get their fields producing again. One vegetable farmer has a 40-acre field that has a six-foot-thick layer of mud and logs covering it.
Just as the storm’s dark clouds passed revealing rays of light, the terrible tragedy was followed by hope and charity by those that could offer relief.
“Everybody is helping!” Gordon says of the relief effort. “It’s an unbelievable amount of help. On the weekend, like on Saturday, you can drive up and down the valley and you hear the same story over and over again. ‘I don’t know them but a group of people just came and helped me clean up,’ Gordon says. “I had 25 Boy Scouts that came down from Renton, Washington, who I had never seen before, and they helped clean out my shop.”
Volunteers from churches, schools, Boy Scouts and many other organizations rushed into the valley to offer assistance. The largest known group Gordon saw one weekend was 3,500 volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“There were times when I would be cleaning and doing something and I would look over and see someone, who I had no clue who they were,” Shilter says. “I had never met them, but they were just there helping.”
Other volunteers helped dig holes to bury deceased livestock and get tractors and equipment cleaned up.
“A national cannery [in Washington State] turned all their crews loose and sent trucks into the valley and changed the fluid and oil from tractors and trucks, and cleaned out their systems, and got them running again,” Gordon says. “They just leapfrogged up the valley. All the groups were priceless help.”
“The generosity of people was unbelievable,” Shilter says. “[At a time like this,] you really find out how generous and helpful people can be. Everything you hear that’s negative in this world, on the news and all these different things, it’s really uplifting to see there are good people in this world still.”
Though the response has been great, much more help is needed to recover from this disaster. The government has aided in the cleanup effort and Congress was able to extend the disaster relief in its Omnibus bill, from Hurricane Katrina, to the flood victims in Washington. Dairy producers can get 26 percent of the value of the cows they lost and partial compensation for the feed they lost. Congress is working on a third form of relief called the Emergency Conservation Program. If approved, these funds would be used to restore fields, fix fences and remove logs.
“It’s currently open for sign-up, but the checkbook is empty,” Gordon says. “Last I knew the USDA had no funding in that account. So we are encouraging farmers to sign up and document their disaster losses and show what their needs are, but until we can get some money in that account there is not much that FSA can do at this point.”
So until government funding can be secured, the Washington State Dairy Federation and dairymen alike are asking for help.
Both organic and conventional feed are needed. Monetary contributions are also welcomed. Anyone willing to donate should contact the Washington State Dairy Federation at P.O. Box 1768, Elma, Washington 98541, or call (360) 482-3485. You can also go to www.wadairyfederation.org and get more information.
Contributions can be sent with instructions on how the donor would like the money to be spent for relief or as a blanket donation for the dairy industry’s relief effort. Donors may include their tax ID number with a memo that they want their donation to be tax deductible and the FFA will send them paperwork. PD