Responding to Idaho's weather disasters
Heavy snows, record rains, rising rivers, landslides and avalanches — and now in mid-May, even more snow in the mountains and Eastern Idaho. Across the state, 31 of 44 counties are under local, state or federal disaster declarations, either recovering from earlier damage or responding to events just now unfolding.
From its border with Canada to Nevada and Utah, Idaho is one big weather mess. And that stands to get worse before it gets better. The heaviest runoff and potential flooding from spring thaws is yet to come. Cooler weather is in place for now, but a warm spell that melts mountain snowpack that is in some places twice its normal maximum could spell trouble, and fast.
“We’ve been anticipating that we would have some kind of flooding/weather-related event last year or this year,” Gen. Brad Richy of the state Office of Emergency Management said Tuesday. “We just didn’t anticipate that it would be statewide, and in such a record.”
One might cast a glance across Idaho and see one big disaster. But for the emergency management and response teams that come to assist, five discrete events date to before Christmas.
Here’s a look at what and where they are, who’s working on them and what’s expected near and long term — and when Idaho might get a break.
How do Idaho’s weather woes break down?
The state Office of Emergency Management designates events by location and time. Those specifics play into later requests for disaster and recovery assistance, pinpointing exact events and effects.
The first, what officials call ID-01, involved a month of severe snow in the counties of Ada, Canyon, Custer, Payette and Washington from Dec. 22 to Jan. 19.
The next, ID-02, covers winter flooding between Feb. 5 and March 3 for the 11 counties of Bingham, Cassia, Elmore, Franklin, Gooding, Jefferson, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka, Twin Falls and Washington. This was the first event that has received a federal disaster declaration so far.
ID-03 involves flooding, landslides and avalanches between March 6 and April 3 in the North Idaho counties of Bonner, Boundary, Clearwater, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Shoshone and Valley. On Thursday, it became the second area to receive a federal disaster declaration, triggering the release of federal funds to help repair or replace disaster damage estimater at $9.6 million.
The last two are happening now. The fourth event covers spring river flooding in Ada, Canyon and Gooding counties, much of it along the Boise River. ID-05 covers the spring flooding in the counties of Blaine, Custer, Elmore and Gooding (again!).
Review the current situation report, or “Sitrep,” from the Office of Emergency Management here.
Who’s involved in response and recovery, and where?
State and local agencies, in all cases. The state so far has sought federal disaster declarations in the first three events. Its request was denied for the first event, initially and again on appeal; granted for the second; and is pending for the third. No application has been made yet for the current two, but are expected.
Personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Idaho soon after the April 21 federal disaster declaration was granted for the 11 Southern Idaho counties. Operating out of the state emergency operations center at Gowen Field in Boise, they have an operations office in Twin Falls and by the end of this week will have 70 personnel on scene in Idaho.
What are these agencies doing?
The state is overseeing and assisting with local response to unfolding events, such tasks as caching of sandbags at strategic locations in case of worsening flooding. FEMA is helping with recovery efforts, but so far only in the 11-county region disaster designated last month by President Donald Trump. Unless and until more federal disaster areas are declared, its activities are limited to that area.
What is FEMA’s role? Are they setting up trailers for displaced residents?
That’s not the type of response requested or provided in this case. FEMA’s “public assistance” grant programs help government entities and certain nonprofits with money to repair or replace publicly owned facilities damaged by disaster.
“We think of roads, bridges, buildings,” said Tim Manner, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer for the Idaho response. “That’s the primary responsibility right now at the request of the state.
That’s different from individual assistance programs to homeowners and renters. The aid requested by the state was for help with public infrastructure.
At Gowen Field, FEMA officials hold brisk status meetings twice a week. Field workers in the affected area help localities identify needs and apply for grants.
What makes this year’s series of events different?
“The fact that it’s carried on so long — that’s certainly different,” FEMA’s Manner said. “It adds an element to it, especially because the state and the local communities have been in the flood fight for a long time. ... Right now there’s nothing beyond the state’s capabilities.”
For Richy, the significance is the scope of the areas affected. It’s statewide. Back to the 1980s, the state has regularly had major floods, fires or other events to contend with. But those have been regional occurrences.
“It’s either in Northern Idaho or it’s Southern Idaho, and it’s not a combination of everything in the state,” he said. “When you start looking at 31 counties out 44 that have had an impact this year, that’s a significant event. ... I don’t know in my lifetime where we’ve seen this kind of catastrophe happen around the entire state.”
A lot depends on the weather. Heavy rains swept through the Treasure Valley this week and the flow on the Boise River was approaching 9,000 cubic feet per second, after an earlier higher but erroneous gauge reading was corrected. Low regional temperatures will hold back mountain snowmelt, but are bringing more snow to Eastern Idaho this week. The long-range weather forecast gives roughly even odds of temperatures below, at or above normal, with perhaps a slight nod to warmer.
Though precautionary planning began last fall, “We had no idea that it would start in December, and here it is the middle of May and we’re still going through it with no anticipated end date yet,” Richy said. The best-case scenario for a reprieve is mid-June.
What about more federal assistance?
The state is expected to seek federal declarations for the two current floods. The Treasure Valley event is essentially a long-term, controlled flood as water managers have continually raised the river flow in anticipation of more melting snowpack, so it will be harder to classify it as a “disaster.” The flooding in Blaine and neighboring counties, however, is more readily defined, both in terms of when it started, its impact, and how long it lasts. The snowpack around Ketchum is at 192 percent of normal.
“I fully anticipate we’re going to see more issues throughout the areas than we’ve seen so far,” Richy said.
What does success look like?
“Our job is to support ... the state, which supports the communities, so that would be success,” said FEMA’s Manner. “The fact that we’re out there in the field, the fact that any questions that are asked we can answer, that we don’t have lapses, don’t let regulations get in the way of saying yes, whatever we can legally do. So that would be success in my world.”
Idaho’s Gen. Richy noted that this year’s disasters have caused millions in damage to property and two storm-related deaths — a Deary woman killed Jan. 19 when her porch roof collapsed under the weight of ice and a Ketchum man working in a flooded basement May 10.
“To me the biggest thing I can look at is how well did the state respond to the needs of the county or the individual local jurisdictions,” Richy said, “and were we successful in providing them what they needed through their request.”