2021 Flood Look-back

The flooding that swept through Whatcom County in November 2021 challenged and irrevocably changed our community.  A precious life was lost, a husband and a father trying to get to work never made it. Homes were inundated, many beyond repair. Farms, roads and businesses were damaged.   

The process of recovery has taken more than two years, millions of dollars, and the help and support of partner agencies ranging from single-digit units within Whatcom County Search-and-Rescue to the massive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

On the second anniversary of the 2021 flood, we honor how far we’ve come by sharing stories of recovery and profiling some of the partners who’ve made a difference. 

Partner Profile: John Kearns, FEMA
Flood Success story: A Fisherman Rebounds
Flood Success story: A Home Repaired
Flood Success story: A Farm Restored

Q&A with the 2021 Disaster Recovery Manager, Patricia Mullett

Partner Profile: John Kearns, FEMA

Two years ago, within days of the flooding that changes the county’s landscape, the first personnel from FEMA arrived. Today, approaching the two-year anniversary of the 2021 flood, FEMA staff are still on-site. 

One of those is Arizona native, John Kearns, now living in Texas. His work as a Public (agency) Assistance Program delivery task force lead has taken him all over the country. He and those who report to him are here to help public agencies with recovery and restoration from the 2021 flood.

“We’re here until the final project is obligated, funded, and closed out,” said Kearns.

The on-site presence matters. Kearns and FEMA teammates work from the Emergency Operations Center in Bellingham, site of Incident Command during the floods. It means they’re only a local phone call away from those they’re helping, plus they’re able to visit the flood-damaged locations personally. 

The personal touch matters. 

“I am responsible for monitoring the projects, issues, RFI’s, DM’s during all phases of the process,” said Kearns, who works to make sure the team is always “courteous and respectful to applicant and recipients.”

For more information about FEMA’s role in the County’s 2021 Flood recovery, Kearns recommended reaching out to Erin Ward via [email protected]

Flood Success story: A Fisherman Rebounds

I’m a Lummi man, a commercial fisherman my whole life. It’s a decent living, supporting my wife and children. When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, the fishing industry went into lockdown for six or seven months. I missed out on diving for sea urchins and sea cucumbers and missed our geoduck, halibut, shrimp and crabbing seasons. My income dropped and my family suffered. 

I hadn’t caught up yet financially when the November 2021 rains came. My fishing boat was in dry dock down at the marina. It rained and rained, and kept raining. It took days for the roads to clear. The storm damaged my pickup truck when I tried to drive it through the flood waters to get my family home. I use my truck to trailer my boat. I followed behind a snow plow that pushed the remaining flood water off the road to get to the marina. That’s when I found my boat’s engine  sitting in about three or four feet of rain water. A plugged-up drain hole ruined my whole engine. Wiring, fuel tank, hydraulics, none of it worked. I couldn’t fish anymore, which is the main source of our family income. It was devastating for me and my family.

After a national disaster was declared (January 2022), I was disappointed to be denied FEMA assistance because fishing is my business and my home didn’t suffer damages. 

In March 2022, a disaster case manager from the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group (WLTRG) contacted me to say they wanted to help repair my boat. By June they were able to find some grant money and donations to help with most of the repairs. But my boat had more unexpected problems, and the price of metal boat parts had gone up so much in the last few years. There was no assistance to finish repairing my boat, and I couldn’t afford to take out another loan. So, in 2022, I missed a whole year of crabbing and most of the dive year, too.

Early in 2023 the WLTRG told me of a business disaster relief grant through the Washington State Department of Commerce, they encouraged me to apply. In March I was approved. The amount of grant funding I received was enough to repair my boat and make additional improvements on it. It also allowed me to set aside some money for future “rainy days.” 

I’m now back fishing again, thanks to the recovery assistance and support I received from State Commerce grant and the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group.

 Flood Success story: A Home Repaired 

In November 2021, Whatcom County was hammered by an atmospheric river. There was no end to the rain in the forecast, and we prepared ourselves for what was to come. We sandbagged every entrance, but it was not enough. Around 11 pm on November 14, with the flood waters at our back steps and still rising, we began moving our furnishings and belongings upstairs. Two hours later, water began seeping in through the floor. I called my brother to come and rescue my wife and children with his farm tractor. The flood water was by now past my waist—and I’m a tall man—making the water too deep for my wife and kids to wade through. I carried my entire family, one by one, to the awaiting tractor. I stayed behind to salvage our belongings as best I could. The Sheriff’s boat rescued me the next morning.

Our home was flooded with 19 inches of water. We moved in with family and began the process of repairing our home. Two weeks later, on November 28, our garage and crawlspace flooded again.

The flood left us with a home that was uninhabitable. Most of the first floor had to be gutted. Not having flood insurance put us in the same predicament as many of our neighbors: paying out of pocket for the damage that was done to our homes. January 5, 2022, the President declared a National Disaster for the county and FEMA was called in to offer disaster assistance.

With the funds we received from FEMA, we repaired the drywall, flooring, and kitchen and bathroom cabinets. That left all the appliances still damaged and the crawlspace unrepaired.

In May 2022, the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group (WLTRG) reached out to us. What a blessing that was! The WLTRG helped us in many ways.  They secured funding through donations and a grant from the State Emergency Management Division that made it possible for us to replace our natural gas furnace, gas range, hot water heater, washer and dryer. The Group’s resources also repaired our damaged crawlspace.

Almost two years later our home is repaired!

Flood Success story: A Farm Restored

In mid-November, the rains started and did not letup. No matter how hard I worked to divert them, the rains flooded my property. Drainage did not perform as it always had. My farm’s culverts filled with water and couldn’t drain to the creek.

The morning brought horror. There was damage to my home - $180,000 worth - and much more to my apple farm. I was ill and could not deal with this, I checked in at a hospital. When I returned, I met with FEMA. Money from FEMA helped get rid of the water and start cleanup, but it wasn’t enough. I had to pull money from my retirement account. To keep my home, I had to make it safe – but the water, septic and mold were overwhelming. Flood waters had undermined my home’s foundation and filled the crawlspace. I almost gave up; my health suffered and funds needed for retirement were drained.

Then I was contacted by the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group (WLTRG). My WLTRG case manager and a few others came out to survey the damage and offer help. They lifted me from despair to hope. My case manager was such a great advocate; she focused on what would make my home safe again. Fortunately, I could do most of the repairs myself, since the WLTRG provided me with materials.

I am so grateful. Today, my home is safe. It survived and so did I.  The WLTRG supported me in developing  a plan that would keep this devastation from ever happening again. 

Without the support from my case manager and the County – without that emotional, financial and physical assistance – my home would have never been livable again.  I would not be the emotionally and physically healthy person I am today.  

Thank you for the help and hope you have given me.

Robert Landry

Q&A with the 2021 Disaster Recovery Manager, Patricia Mullett: 

1. What grants or resources are currently available for flood survivors? 
There are two major grants still in process as a result of the 2021 disaster. The first is a home repair program which is funded by the Washington State Emergency Management Division ($750,000 for fiscal years 2023 and 2024) and implemented by the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group. This funding is currently available to folks impacted by the disaster. If you’d like to see if you qualify, contact a disaster case manager via email at [email protected].   

The second grant is a Community Block Development Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and implemented by the Washington State Department of Commerce (COM). This CDBG-DR grant is currently being developed by COM and the Public Action Plan is scheduled to be released for public comment at the end of November. Stay tuned on the WCSO Facebook page for updates and information about how to submit public comment. 

2. Is there funding available for home elevations?  
Whatcom County has two home elevation applications in the final stages of approval from FEMA with a total of 24 properties in the applications. These FEMA applications are the only grant resources currently available for home elevations. If you are interested in a home elevations or acquisitions, please contact Deb Johnson ([email protected]) for more information. 

3. What are other disasters – like the 2020 Super Bowl flood or last December’s storms, is there money available to cover damages from those? 
At this time, there are no grant resources available to cover damages from the 2020 Super Bowl flood or 2022 storms. 

4. What is happening with mitigation efforts on the Nooksack River?  
Over the past two years, Whatcom County’s River and Flood’s Division has been working vigorously to repair thirteen existing flood control structures damaged by the 2021 disaster and to develop and implement a series of long-term risk reduction projects. (You can learn more about these projects here.) Stakeholders and tribes have been meeting regularly through the Floodplain Integrated Planning (FLIP) process to identify and develop possible solutions to flooding at the flow split in Everson. I encourage you to stay updated on the projects currently underway and learn more about improvements to the Nooksack River Floodplain in this video series!  

5. I’m still struggling to recover from the 2021 Flood – are there any resources available? 
Yes! There is a grant for home repairs and appliance replacement available through the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group. To find out if you qualify, contact a disaster case manager by email at [email protected]

6. Is it too late to help out or contribute? 
It’s never too late to help! If you’d like to volunteer with the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group to assist with home repairs, you can contact them at [email protected].  

You can also join local organizations in funding recovery or preparing for future disasters:  

Whatcom Community Foundation’s Resilience Fund: https://wcf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create/fund?funit_id=1455 (This fund provides emergency assistance during a crisis) 

Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group: https://wcf.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create/fund?funit_id=3377 (This funds the LTRG as they address needs not met by grant funding.)