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Battered by destructive floods, Grays Harbor bets on a $182M levee

The Aberdeen-Hoquiam Flood Protection Project, comprising two levees and a pump station, has long been an aspirational moonshot, but an influx of federal funding this year has seemingly pushed the idea within reach. Some concerns about environmental impact and long-term vulnerabilities remain.

Posted on January 23, 2023

Victoria Schmid knew a king tide was approaching Grays Harbor when she set out for work at Al’s Humdinger, a burger joint in Hoquiam, on Jan. 3, 2022. But she didn’t let it deter her from getting some cleaning done at “the Dinger,” yards removed from the Hoquiam River that separates most of the city from neighboring Aberdeen.

Alone and laser-focused on scouring the inside of an oven hood, she heard a knock on the door: A bank employee stopped by to let her know the river was overflowing.

Schmid panicked, waded to her truck through foot-high water and went to collect materials to make sandbags. She returned with four bags and every towel she could find. It wasn’t until a police officer stopped by to tell her she’d likely get electrocuted if she didn’t leave that she finally relented. The officer threw the breaker on the electrical panel, and they both jumped out the front window.

“It was pretty horrific to me, and unexpected. That’s for sure,” Schmid recently recalled. “The garbage cans were floating everywhere. It was just bizarre.”

Al’s Humdinger has been a Hoquiam landmark since the 1950s. The burger joint flooded in January 2022 when the Hoquiam River, just behind the building, overflowed its banks.

When she returned not long after, Schmid said a prayer, turned on the electrical panel, and breathed a sigh of relief. “But it was just a sloppy, terrible, muddy mess,” she said.

Victoria Schmid makes burgers in Al’s Humdinger, Dec. 2, 2022. After the restaurant flooded, Schmid repaired the water damage inside herself.

Severe flooding exacerbated by climate change has become less and less of an anomaly in coastal Grays Harbor County. The twin cities of Aberdeen (pop. 17,191) and Hoquiam (pop. 8,860) sit adjacent to each other in a crevice of the Olympic Peninsula. They’ve flooded at least once a year for the past five years, pelted by waves, extreme rain and overflowing rivers. Since 1964, records show 17 floods caused so much damage they qualified as federal disasters.

The existential threat of flooding has already reshaped building codes and spiked insurance rates that make it hard for residents to renovate homes or attract business to the area, they say. A Climate Central analysis estimated that flooding will threaten at least $500 million in home value in Aberdeen and Hoquiam by 2050.


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