Letters from the West

‘I don’t think people see the history.’ 1943 Boise flood shows why public notice matters

When it comes to guessing what the Boise River will look like in a major flood, Raleigh Hawe has an advantage over most of us.

He was 8 years old in 1943 when the Boise River watershed was full of snow and the the existing reservoir, Arrowrock, was almost full. He lived with his parents Arleigh and Elsie Hawe and 2-year-old sister Julie in a house on the river in what is now Garden City.

It was early April when unseasonably warm temperatures triggered the melting of the snowpack. Hawes remembers people coming to their house and telling them they had two days to pack up their boxes and furniture and get out.

Flows of 25,000 cubic feet per second, three times the Boise’s flood flows today, came over Arrowrock and rushing down the river into what was then a much smaller city of Boise, with farmlands to its west. The Hawe family had left their home, but watched as the entire river bottom that was then the location of the Chinese Gardens (from which Chinden Boulevard gets its name) was covered with flood flows.

“The water was everywhere,” says Hawe, now 82.

The family’s little house was saved, perched above the flood plain that was able to soak up and disperse the water after it flowed over the Boise River’s banks.

“It had a long way to spread out then,” Hawe said.

The Boise River still has a long way to spread out today — only there are a lot more homes and businesses in the Valley bottom now. In 1943, there was no Ranch Club, no Stagecoach, no Riverside Hotel. Where Garden City is now there were gardens, a few food processing plants and the Davis Packing Co., where Raleigh Hawe’s dad Arleigh worked.

Raleigh remembers the family driving up to Arrowrock during the flood, where “the water was ready to go over the dam.” He remembers driving out to Duck Alley off of Linder Road at Eagle Island, where water covered everything on both sides of the road.

Today, the Boise River Valley faces the biggest flood threat since Lucky Peak Dam was built in 1955. Federal dam managers raised the flows briefly in 1983 to 9,500 cfs. But today’s flows of 8,600 cfs at Glenwood are the highest, long-term flows the Boise River has faced since places like Boise State University, ParkCenter Boulevard’s business district and the substantial development around Eagle Island and West were built.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the two agencies that control Boise River flows, have been good at telling us when they will raise the river over the next few days. But because of the uncertainties of weather and conditions along the river — such as the Sunroc gravel pit near Eagle Island that required an emergency levee built by the U.S. Army Corps to keep the rising river from redirecting its course into the pit — the agencies don’t want to make longer-term predictions, publicly anyway.

The public is beginning to get restless. They’ve heard the messages that vulnerable property owners should get prepared and buy flood insurance, because it takes 30 days for new policies to take into effect. Ada County is posting information on its websites about how to get ready to evacuate and how to get an alert.

But Valley residents don’t know how the federal and local agencies are going to make the decisions that could be critical to their lives over the next few weeks and months before the flood threat subsides. That’s why I think they should follow the model of wildfire incident command teams, who hold weekly community meetings during fires.

Such meetings would give the public a chance to hear from the people who are making those decisions. People could ask officials direct questions.

Many of the levees that held in the river in 1943 are gone now, either removed previously or washed out in past and current flooding. That’s Hawe’s main worry now. Today, he lives outside Wilder along the Snake River near the Oregon border on a farm he bought after retiring from Boeing, Trus Joist and his own company.

“I just don’t think people see the history of things like this,” Hawe said. “It could be something very serious.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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