The Flood of January 1997 – The Real Story

(Editor’s Note: This year was the 25th anniversary of the January 1997 Flood, and countless article have been written about that seminal event. Unfortunately, they all got it wrong. Yes, there was a flood in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 1997 which caused minimal damage, but the REAL flood, the one that caused all the destruction, came a day later on January 2. To give future historians an opportunity to have access to the whole story, here is an article I wrote for the February 1997 issue of the Sneak Preview. It reads like a spy thriller. –Curtis Hayden)
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EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION, December 31, 1996. Storm warnings are being issued by the National Weather Service. There is potential for flooding on Ashland Creek, Bear Creek and small creeks within Ashland. Flooding may occur within your area. If you have water/flooding or electric problems, please notify the Ashland Police Department. Sandbags will be available at 1075 B Street. Please come prepared to fill your own bags if possible. I you need help, City crews and volunteers will be able to assist you.

The Flood of January 1997 – The Real Story

Here Come Da Flood

City Administrator Brian Almquist was almost positive some sort of flood was going to visit downtown Ashland on the night of December 31, 1996. Exactly how much he wasn’t sure, but an “Emergency Notification” flier had been prepared that afternoon and distributed to all Plaza merchants and residents in the Oak Street and Helman neighborhoods.

Almquist had been on the job only four years in 1974 when a similar situation occurred. Ashland had received five and a half inches of rain in 24 hours that year, and the entire Plaza had been engulfed, with water filling all the basements.

This year, however, was different. There had been two weeks of steady rain, plus an enormous stockpile of snow that was slowly melting, and all of the creeks and drainage areas were steadily reaching saturation point.

At some critical moment, things were bound to burst, and predictions of another huge downpour on New Year’s Eve only added to the tension.

“I knew something was going to happen,” Almquist said in an interview in his office last Friday. “The night before (December 30), I’d driven around town to check out all the drainage routes; and the culverts along the railroad tracks near Mill Pond Village had already crested.”

The next day Almquist called a meeting of City personnel and put everyone on alert. If anything was going to happen, it would probably be that night. Sandbag crews began working that afternoon at the City’s facility on B Street, but still no one could predict the enormity of the disaster that would strike not that night, but almost 28 hours later when a cascading wall of mud, silt, trees and debris would descend on Lithia Park and the Plaza.

A Day in the Life of a Disaster

Ashland Fire Chief Keith Woodley was fairly familiar with the Ashland Emergency Management Plan—he had, after all, written it. The plan is a comprehensive document about four inches thick which delineates contingency plans for every conceivable disaster, from fires and floods to earthquakes and chemical spills.

Every year the City goes through one or two drills, hoping that they’ll never have to activate the EOC (Emergency Operating Committee) in real life. In the early morning hours of January 1, 1997, those hopes were dashed.

“At midnight I got a call from dispatch telling me than an emergency management meeting had been called for all City department heads,” Woodley said. “I drove to the Plaza to investigate, and even though the water was still in the creek channel, it was impacting heavily with the concrete bridge face at Winburn Way. We called in sandbags to create a wall and prevent excess water flow onto the Plaza.”

The meeting of department heads was sobering. A disaster was officially declared, and the EOC was activated. According to the manual, the Director of Community Development was to assume the position of Incident Commander, appointing other members of the emergency management team.

Unfortunately, Planning Director John McLaughin was out of town, so Police Chief Gary Brown stepped in as Incident Commander. He appointed Woodley Field Operations Chief.

“The way the plan is written, anyone on the team could fill any of the jobs assigned,” Woodley said. “One’s normal job responsibilities are not necessarily the jobs that person will fill in a disaster.”

While he didn’t say it, I could only assume that Woodley was alluding to the criticism the City had endured after Mayor Cathy Golden decided to fire Public Works Director Susan Wilson Broadus three weeks after the flood. And, in fact, the most constant refrain I heard from people all week was the question: why was the Public Works Director, ostensibly the only certified hydrologic engineer on staff, not appointed as Field Operations Chief during the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 1?

That question has become completely muddled in the wake of Broadus’ firing. Her lawyer has advised her to remain silent (as opposed to her vocal accusations and suppositions reported in the Daily Tidings on February 3, just subsequent to her “official” firing by the City Council the next day). And the City has definitely circled its wagons with regard to Ms. Broadus, denying all comment on “personnel matters.”

Brian Almquist, however, certainly had an answer for why she was not appointed to the emergency management team.

“Because the Community Development Director was out of town, we appointed Police Chief Gary Brown as Incident Commander,” he said. “And since (Assistant City Administrator) Greg Scoles and Public Works Director Susan Wilson Broadus had only been on the job for six months, we appointed Keith Woodley as Operations Chief. To be truthful, both of them looked relieved because they had not been here long enough to really know how the system worked.”

According to Almquist, the plan worked to perfection. “We’d had some dry runs of the management plan last year, and back then it seemed like a waste of time,” he said. “But it really paid off. Everything worked like a Swiss watch.”

Within hours the sandbag dike at Winburn Way was keeping water off the front of the Plaza. In back on Guanajuato Way the situation was a little different.

“The flooding was pretty bad back there all night,” Almquist said. “It was a dangerous situation because we have some electrical transformers that need to be protected. I personally when to Alex’s and the Black Sheep earlier and told them we’d have to shut off the electricity when the water got too close to the transformers. The problem was it was New Year’s Eve, and they begged us to wait until midnight.”

Which they did. It wasn’t long, however, before water starting lapping up next to the transformers.
“I think we turned everything off a few minutes after midnight,” he said. “It was eerie. Everything was pitch black and all you could hear was the water rushing by on Guanajuato Way.

Night of the Living Tree

Keith Woodley’s crew on Winburn Way, meanwhile, was working through the night to keep water from the front of the Plaza. Guanajuato Way was a foregone conclusion, but many of the merchants were dealing effectively with the water. One of them was Bill Gilliam, owner of Mountain Supply, with floor space both upstairs and in the basement.

“In my mind the danger didn’t seem too imminent, but maybe that was just my lack of experience,” Gilliam said. “We put sandbags by the back stairwell, and I went home at six o’clock. At two in the morning, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was raining pretty hard, so I went down to the store to check things out. Water was starting to come down the alley, so I got everything off the floor and had the sump pump working. We were slowly taking in water, but the pumps kept in under control.”

At 5:30 in the morning, just as it was getting light, Fire Chief Keith Woodley stared in disbelief at what was coming toward him on Ashland Creek.

“A large tree sixty feet high was loose in the stream channel and floating vertically toward us,” he said. “It was something I’d never seen before and hope to never see again. The root structure was keeping it buoyant in the water. We all peeled out of there in a hurry. It was truly an act of God.”

The roots hit the culvert with a resounding thud, and the tree tumbled into the sandbag dike, releasing a flood of water that escaped onto the front of the Plaza. Although the water was 8-10” in depth, most of the store owners I talked to the next morning were not affected by it.

“Maybe a little bit of water seeped in,” Gilliam said. “But it was nothing compared to what we were getting from Guanajuato Way.”

By 11:00 that morning (January 1), the sandbag dike had been repaired, and the front of the Plaza had been returned to normal. Hundreds of people, my family included, converged on the Plaza for some serious rubbernecking.

While the front entrances of the stores took small quantities of water, the flood was still gushing down Guanajuato Way. Across Main Street, Bluebird Park was a small lake, and water was pouring into the Rogue Brewery. Van Ness and Hersey Streets were closed off to traffic as water had crested over the bridges.

Everyone hoped that the worst was behind us, but the weatherman was reporting another storm coming. No one could predict what was going to happen next.

Mother Nature Strikes Back

“In 1974 all we had was water,” Almquist said. “After that flood, the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA), required that we do a floodplain study and implement ordinances to stop construction in the floodplain. We did that, but unfortunately the Plaza is located in the middle of a floodplain.”

If it had only been water, the City might have escaped the 1997 disaster with minimal damage. As it turned out, Mother Nature sent up a curveball.

“The ground in the watershed was so unstable that three major landslides occurred in the canyon,” Almquist said. “On top of that, another landslide hit the water filtration plant and took out our chlorine building. We’re extremely lucky that our sump pumps were working and kept the water away from our electronic telemetry. If that had happened, we would’ve been in major trouble.”

As it turned out the Plaza was in major trouble. Mud and debris from the landslides were colliding with trees and structures all along Ashland Creek. Behind the Plaza, an observation deck, built in 1971, was collecting trees and creating an obstruction that was backing water up. Meanwhile, the creek had formed a diversion through Lithia Park just across from the skating rink, and now two streams of water were cascading onto the Plaza.

At 6:33pm on the night of January 1, local excavator Burl Brim was called. He was on the scene at eight the next morning with his 55,000-pound excavator.

“I had to unplug that observation deck five times,” Brim said. “I’d grab the trees and pieces of bridges and place them on the deck. My vehicle was surrounded by water, and there were times when it was lapping up into my cab.”

By late morning (Thursday, January 2) the Plaza—front and back—was a flowing mass of water, as seen on the CBS Evening News and every other news organization in the known world. Water Street had caved in from sinkholes, and the picture of its demise is now part of the history of the New Year’s Day Flood of ’97.

But it was actually the Flood of January 2nd that did the most damage. When City Administrator Brian Almquist and Chief Woodley surveyed the scene that morning, they were aghast.

“After about five in the morning, you couldn’t even walk across the Plaza and get to any of the buildings,” Woodley said. “The water was moving too fast. At that time, we decided to build a berm parallel to the front of the park to divert the water from the front of the Plaza. In hindsight, I suppose it was a little presumptuous for us to think we could negate the effects of natural disasters like this. To think that we could have prevented this is foolish.”

Almquist wanted to diffuse the rumor that the City’s berm is what caused the damage to stores like Lithia Stationers, Renaissance Rose, and other businesses connected to them. “Those stores took a direct hit before we even built the berm,” he said. “And for a while the berm was working. The only water on the Plaza was coming through Lithia Stationers and out Small Change. But the mud, silt and debris damage that those stores took all happened before that.”

Nightmare on Main Street

At midnight Brian Almquist decided to go home and get some sleep. He’d been up for almost 48 hours. At 3am on the morning of January 3, he sat up in bed with nightmarish images of the Plaza buildings collapsing.

“Before I left that night, I could hear the walls of some of those buildings popping and cracking,” he said. “The lime mortar holding the bricks together was staring to wear away. There was silt and water five feet high in some of the buildings, and I could just picture a domino effect of walls coming down.”

Fearing that the natural disaster could escalate into something uglier, he called a small cadre of people to meet him at the Plaza at four in the morning. One of those was Public Works Director Susan Wilson Broadus.

“Assistant City Engineer Jim Olson, Susan and I stood on the other side of the creek on the Alice Peil Walkway and talked about what to do,” Almquist said. “They advised that the culvert be torn away and a new channel dug in its place. I made the decision to do it, and it created enough hydraulic pressure to draw the water away from the Plaza.”

At the same time Burl Brim, along with Wayne Christiansen Excavating, created another berm parallel to the new stream channel, and within hours the flood was under control.

It’s a Bad Day for a Firing

Whether it was Susan Wilson Broadus or Brian Almquist who made the decision to cut out the culvert is irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. The biggest question people want answered is why it wasn’t done earlier.

“A natural disaster is something no one can predict or prevent no matter what they do,” Almquist said. “It’s also like a tragedy in the family. Everyone goes through stages of denial, anger and blame. They want to find someone to blame, yet there’s no preferred way to manage a flood. We couldn’t know that a mountain of mud and debris was going to come down. That didn’t happen in 1974.”

The firing of Susan Wilson Broadus, however, made it an issue. If indeed she was fired for personality conflicts with “everyone” in the Public Works Department, as the mayor claimed in the Tidings article, then the flood issue is moot. But since she obviously helped in devising the final solution to the flood waters, having her fired seemed to an unusual way to show one’s gratitude.
The mayor’s decision to press on with the firing so soon after the flood was a classic example of poor timing. While the vast majority of Plaza merchants I talked with were supportive of the City’s role in handling the flood, many were shocked that Broadus, who figured so prominently in the final decision, was let go.

“Here’s a woman who is a hydrologic engineer, and they don’t even have her as part of the management team,” said one merchant, who wished to remain anonymous. “Yet as soon as they call her in, the situation is resolved. Why in the hell didn’t they have her there from the beginning?”

That, of course, is Monday morning quarterbacking, but at least one person wants a full investigation. Local attorney Lloyd Haines, who owns a number of buildings on the Plaza, has formally requested “an independent review and inquiry as to the City’s responsibility, if any, for the damage to the Plaza buildings and businesses resulting from the flood of 1997.”

Although Haines was out of town on business when I called last Friday, I did obtain a copy of his February 13 letter to the City Council. He alluded to some of the accusations Broadus made in the Tidings article on February 3, stating that it was important “to review the decisions that have been made in order to determine whether they were reasonable and prudent.”

Haines ended the letter by saying the request “is being made on behalf of numerous Plaza business and property owners, some of whom are listed on the attachment to the letter.

Dealing with the Merchants

Not everyone on the Plaza is upset with the City. Most of the merchants I talked with were supportive of the City and Brian Almquist. One of them is Rich Hansen, a self-described nemesis of Almquist over the years. Hansen called me while he was on vacation in Orlando, Florida, to express his support for the city administrator.

“I thought everyone did a fantastic job, given the circumstances,” Hansen said. “There was just a hell of a lot of water and no one could predict all that mud and debris. A lot of my neighbors are trying to find fault with what the City did, but I think they did a great job.”

Many of the merchants were upset over the post-flood behavior of the City, in which the merchants were not allowed go to back into their buildings even to empty cash registers or retrieve purses.
“We were still worried about the safety of the buildings, and we had them declared ‘dangerous,’ which puts them under our control,” Almquist said. “There were a lot of emotional issues involved for the merchants, and we were trying to work with them.”

Michael Donovan, a local businessman whose restaurant Chateaulin across from the Plaza was not touched by flood waters, intervened on behalf of the merchants. “I talked with Brian after the Friday, January 3, meeting and asked him to reconsider his decision,” Donovan said. “I arranged for another meeting on Saturday morning at my restaurant, and I give Brian credit for willing to step up and realize other considerations.”

After that Saturday morning meeting, Almquist agreed to let the merchants into the buildings. “There was just too much emotion there,” he said. “Originally, we wanted to keep the buildings off limits for 48 hours while we made our inspections. What we did was let each merchant into his or her building for thirty minutes, escorted by firefighters in case anything happened.

After the Flood

As it stands now, most of the Plaza businesses are either back up and running or will be soon; Lithia Park is slowly being worked back into shape; an engineering firm will make recommendations on what to do with the front of the park, the culvert and the observation deck; Susan Wilson Broadus is contemplating redress from the City; Lloyd Haines is awaiting a final decision from the City Council; and everyone else is just hoping and praying that a disaster of this magnitude can be avoided in the future. Keith Woodley isn’t so sure.

“In spite of everything we know, the bottom line is that the entire Plaza is constructed in a floodplain,” he said. “The Native Americans must have been shaking their heads when they saw the first settlers build a city there.”