Aftermath of the December 2007 flood that's come back to haunt some Thornton Creek residents.
Hop in the Way Back Machine to December of 2007.


When It Rains It Pours: Thornton Creek Residents Soaked by City's New Flood Maps

Aftermath of the December 2007 flood that's come back to haunt some Thornton Creek residents.
Hop in the Way Back Machine to December of 2007. As the Seattle Times reported, a "series of extraordinary events" led to the horrific death of Kate Fleming, a local audiobook narrator who drowned in a windowless room in her Madison Valley basement. A surge of floodwater caused by record-setting storms was the culprit. Mayor Nickels and the city acted quickly, setting out on a detailed course of action to resolve flooding issues including remapping local flood plains.

Now, back in present day, we have Daniel, a Seattle resident whose property backs up to Thornton Creek. OK, maybe that's being a bit generous. You can't really see the creek, but it's there, down a steep grade at the end of his lawn, far out of harms way. Even still, last week Daniel got a letter from Seattle Public Utilities telling him that, due to his proximity to the creek, he was now in what the city considered to be a flood-zone. The next day he got a similar letter, this one from his insurance company, politely reminding him that now might be a smart time to invest in flood insurance.

What's happened to Daniel is the same thing that has happened to 900 other residents near Thornton Creek and promises to happen to many more around Seattle: the Thornton Creek watershed is just one of five flood-zones that's being remapped. And to give you an understanding of why this all seems a little ridiculous, let's let Daniel tell you what would have to happen for his house to flood.

"If you look at where I live, the creek would have to rise at least 15-20 feet to get to me, and another 5-10 feet to get to my neighbors," he says. "If Thornton Creek ever threatened my house everybody in Seattle better have a boat and a paddle, because it's time to build the Ark."

In some ways, the city actually agrees with Daniel. Last night, SPU held a meeting at North Seattle Community College as a way of introducing all these new flood-zoners to the idea that there houses were now considered in harms way. About 50 residents showed up, some pretty upset like Daniel. They talked with the city for three hours, he says, and at the end someone from SPU laid out their new flood-zone maps on tables for all the residents to look at. Daniel found his house and, well, had all his original thoughts confirmed.

"There's an area in our yard approximately the size of a picnic table that once every 100 years might possibly get wet," he says. "It's in the part of the yard that has to be at least a 45-degree grade. You can't even stand on it let alone build on it. But because of this my property gets designated as a flood plain."

Daniel is understandably upset about this. As a result of the city's new maps, he'll probably have to invest $1,000 a year in flood insurance, the same as his other 900 neighbors. But he's more upset about what he sees as a lack of due process from the city, on the front and back ends.

"If a portion of somebody's property is going to go under we absolutely agree, yes, the city has the right and the duty to regulate that," he says. "However, what our problem is here is that this is being indiscriminately applied to all these properties with no individual examination being done. There's been absolutely no due process. They still haven't offered us any formal process for disputing or challenging this. And the entire cost of is born of the homeowner."

(SPU's press guy is on vacation this week. Calls and an e-mail to point person Holly McCracken have yet to be returned.)

That last point Daniel made, about disputing or challenging, is another key. At some point -- the city isn't sure just when -- they'll turn their maps over to FEMA. A neighbor of Daniels called FEMA just to figure out: What would they have to do to get off the flood-zone map? The answer, it turns out, is nothing. Once they're on they can't get off. But they can do something.

If residents like Daniel hire a hydrologist to come out to their property and determine that their home is not at risk, then they can get a voucher that says they don't have to buy flood insurance. But FEMA only gives residents a 90-day window with which to get that voucher. And Daniel's looked: There's only so many hydrologists around Seattle. How many can come out to all these homes at once and get in under the deadline? And is it worth the $1-$2,000 it might cost just to get a voucher?

These are the questions that Daniel and other Thornton Creek residents are asking themselves. And they're the lucky ones.

Daniel says there are neighbors of his who've been planning years in advance to sell their homes and move away. Now he's wondering how much money they stand to lose by having their properties included on the new flood-zone maps. (We talked to five different real estate agents and, I kid you not, every one of them claimed to not have a clue. We're gonna call an appraiser as soon as we overcome this urge to strangle all the people associated with the real estate industry.)

The last and final thing that's pissing off Daniel: Not only does he feel like SPU kept he and his neighbors in the dark until the last moment, he feels that they spent more time managing the story of the new maps than publicizing the new maps to those who are affected. As proof, he's got this October 6th Seattle Times article from Susan Gilmore. In it you'll hear from two residents: One whose home was taken off the new flood-zone maps and another who says she's happy to pay $1,000 a year to live in what she calls her "phenomenal little fantasy island."

Daniel thinks that SPU handed Gilmore this story fully packaged and, in a way, he's right. We called Gilmore and asked her how she got the story.

"(SPU) called a press conference at Matthews Beach and invited the media," she says.

SPU also gave Gilmore the names of certain residents to call. Daniel's wasn't one of them but, by the time the story had come out, he'd only just gotten his letter from the city.

Interestingly, after all this, Daniel says his best course of action may be inaction. The city tried to fix a mess and may have created another one. Now, says Daniel, he's looking to avoid the same outcome.

"I'm actually a little concerned to do anything at all because right now nobody's pestering me," he says. "If I go and try to clean up the mess I may find myself in a worse position."

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