Carnation approves $190,000 land purchase

CARNATION - The City Council last week went forward with a plan to purchase 20 acres of Tolt River Highlands property to use as an evacuation site in case of dam failure and severe flooding.

The land is located about two blocks behind Carnation Elementary, north of the Swiftwater development, and is owned by Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company (WRECO). Currently, elementary children are evacuated to the property just next to the land. The land purchase will be finalized May 14.

Carnation officials have been contemplating the decision for years to provide an emergency gathering place for the city's residents, but only in recent months did they find out the land was still available for sale. The property has an elevation of more than 300 feet, which is out of flood waters' reach.

Watershed experts have long known that if the South Fork Tolt River Dam, which was built in 1961 and lies approximately 16 river miles east of the city, was to experience a catastrophic earthquake, it could collapse and send a wall of water anywhere from 6- to 20- feet high rushing toward Carnation.

"It would take a catastrophic event that man can't envision, simultaneously with the largest flood ever in the area," said Laurel Harrington, dam and seismic safety manager for Seattle Public Utilities, the entity that manages the dam. "The dam is well taken care of and has been analyzed for the maximum credible earthquake, the largest earthquake that experts feel can physically occur, which is a shallow, 7.0 earthquake, with the epicenter 6 miles from the site."

Harrington said that the dam is beneficial to the city because it holds back water that would normally flood Carnation.

If a dam breach were to occur, Carnation residents would only have one hour's notice to evacuate.

"That's literally long enough to decide what to put on your back and start walking quickly," said Woody Edvalson, city manager. "It is a potentially scary proposition, and we're just trying to provide a resource for the residents, school children, business people and travelers that live, work in and travel through the Carnation area.

"The city of Carnation is currently situated where if a really strong, shallow earthquake were to occur when there was already river flooding on the Snoqualmie and Tolt rivers, citizens at that time would really be isolated and have nowhere to go but up that hill," Edvalson said. The flood would also be dangerous because it could carry houses, trees and other debris into the city.

Edvalson explained that if the city did not own the land on the hill, residents who run up the hill in an emergency would be invading private property, and there aren't any facilities to provide shelter.

The city plans on installing concrete pads with some electrical hookups where tents could be erected for shelter, and larger pads where emergency vehicles could park and offer services. Also, a trail would be built to move a large amount of people uphill.

"The intent is not to have much in the way of buildings or facilities up there, but to be able to bring [people] up there quickly," Edvalson said.

"We want the whole package - a good evacuation trail and a safe place to be while we find out when, and if, we can return," said Councilwoman Laurie Clinton, who has had the project in mind for 14 years.

Clinton added that the city is doing more than buying land; it will also develop an emergency evacuation plan. An emergency warning siren is already in place to warn of a dam breach.

The rest of the time, the land would be left as open space and could serve as a park for picnicking, walking and views.

Although the City Council approved the purchase, Carnation cannot afford to foot the entire $190,000 bill. Operating reserves are being used to purchase the land up-front, but the money must be recouped for the long-term financial operation of the city.

If the city does not find additional funding for the land purchase within 90 days, Carnation's only uphill emergency spot will have to be sold. However, Clinton is confident that the money will be found.

She added that she wanted residents to know that Carnation is not wasting money on the land purchase.

"The only reason we're doing this is because of the Tolt Dam. There's no other reason to do this," she explained.

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