Center of the storm: Volunteers keep info flowing during Snoqualmie flood emergency
March 31, 2011 · 1:59 PM
A Snoqualmie resident arrives home late Wednesday evening, March 30, to find a message on her answering machine warning of an impending flood. Concerned, she calls the Snoqualmie Emergency Operations Center, where Rich Collingwood, a volunteer radio operator with SECAST, the Snoqualmie Emergency Communications and Support Team, picks up the phone.
Do you think her street will flood, she asks him.
"The graphs have leveled out in the last two hours," he tells her. "At this flow rate, there's a good possibility," yet residents don't need to evacuate. The latest prediction shows that water won't approach the level of major floods in years past.
The phone alert is "just letting you know," Collingwood said. "She's been through it before."
Collingwood and a half-dozen other SECAST volunteers set up the city's emergency center, or EOC, in the late afternoon of March 30 as flood predictions climbed. At 6 p.m., Collingwood sent out an automated reverse-911 call to residents in the Pickering Court and Meadowbrook neighborhoods, a.k.a. Snoqualmie flood zones one and two, urging people to be aware of rising water.
By 9 p.m., the flood situation had calmed. The EOC went to level one, a monitoring phase.
"We're watching the river numbers, trying to make sense of where the river is going, how it's going to get there, and making notifications as necessary," said Paul Graham, who heads up SECAST and is a Snoqualmie police sergeant.
Outside, police officers on patrol fed information on what they saw back to the radio room, where volunteers logged everything that happens.
In the command center, SECAST members monitored river flows on laptops, chatted quietly, flipped news channels and waited for more calls. One member's young daughter hummed and doodled on a table. Maps and white boards showed the latest information, and, in bright red, digital letters, a clock displayed the hour in military time.
Predictions pushed back the crest of the flood, but the volunteers planned to stick it out until midnight, then go home, regrouping early the next morning to await the full brunt of the waters.
At their tables, SECAST volunteers check the news and watch county and Floodzilla sites for real-time flood data. The multiple sources make for a more complete picture, as the team doesn't rely on a single perspective.
"We take everything with a grain of salt," Collingwood said.
Channel changes, such as temporary removal of the concrete weir at the Falls, may have changed the way floodwaters move in Snoqualmie, Collingwood said.
"We've had to recalculate everything," he said. "We're used to a certain flow."
"Anytime they do an adjustment with the flow, the river's going to react differently," said Snoqualmie Fire Chief Bob Rowe. "We have predictions... but until it actually floods, it's hard to determine."
Rowe said Snoqualmie's 'regular suspects,' low-lying neighborhoods in zones one and two, did get wet in the January flood, which matched flood level predictions this week.
"The thing that was phenomenal this time around was the predictions," Rowe added. Numbers changed every half an hour on March 30, some by 10,000-cfs margins.
"I don't know why there was so much variation," Rowe said.
A few years ago, SECAST members tried to mark Snoqualmie floodwater levels with painted lines. The paint just washed away.
"We think about putting up a permanent pole," Collingwood said. "Apparently, it was done before. People took the pole."
Most SECAST members on duty Wednesday live in North Bend or Snoqualmie. None have homes in harm's way that night.
Their support role backs up officers on the street. Besides keeping a log and talking to citizens, SECAST members write the script and then make the AM 1650 radio announcement on the flood. Collingwood usually speaks the lines, as he has the best 'radio' voice.
Volunteers also act as dispatchers for public works crews when patrolling police decide a road must be closed.
All SECAST members come from some kind of emergency-response background, such as search and rescue, incident command or communications.
Every member brings a different talent, Graham said; "We bring that all together."
"A lot of us have been doing this for years," said Brian Kassa, a Snoqualmie resident who joined the group about 11 years ago. SECAST is just one of a 20-year line of emergency teams he's been involved in.
"It's one of those things that gets in your blood," he said. "Once it is, wherever you end up, you figure out a way to do it."
"I've been working all day," Kassa said. "I'll be here 'til midnight."
He figures that if he wasn't at the EOC, "I'd just be sitting at home on the couch, watching TV."
"We're all giving back to the community," said Collingwood, a disaster recovery analyst for Paccar.
Besides the satisfaction of involvement, and showing their families that giving back is important, the volunteers also feel the excitement of being at the center of events.
"It's an adrenaline rush," Collingwood said.