One questioned matters most in the wake of the worst flooding Pendleton experienced in more than 20 years: What do you do to make sure this never happens again?
Pendleton Mayor John Turner said that was the question he heard over and over during the flooding along McKay Creek. The weekend emergency prompted the community to rally and help neighbors keep rushing muddy waters at bay from homes in the town’s south end. Around 130 or more attended Wednesday night’s meeting at Sherwood Heights Elementary School to hear the latest information on the flood. And one man felt the heat of the central question: Sean Kimbrel.
Kimbrel is the Bureau of Reclamation’s field office manager in charge of McKay Reservoir, which at the peak of the flooding dumped more than 2,700 cubic feet of water per second into McKay Creek. He joined officials from the National Weather Service, the Oregon Health Authority and the city of Pendleton to deliver the overall picture of the cause of the flood and what is happening in the aftermath. Instead of holding an audience-wide question-and-answer session afterward, the speakers broke out to answer questions one-on-one.
Shawn Penninger, Pendleton assistant fire chief, drew no one. The same for Marc Austin with the National Weather Service. But a couple dozen swarmed around Kimbrel.
He stood with his back to the wall while locals demanded answers. Carl Scheeler for a while led the interrogation.
“I want you to pay for the damage,” Scheeler asserted.
Others echoed that. Kimbrel said they would need to file a tort claim. In other words, a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
That answer did not satisfy the mob, and faces grew red.
Scheeler stated the bureau was negligent in how it handed the release from McKay Reservoir into the creek. The federal agency should have realized days sooner it needed to make room for the heavy rain and melting snow.
“You put us at risk,” Scheeler stated to Kimbrel.
Pendleton police Sgt. Paul Woverton slipped in and stood near Kimbrel, who told Scheeler and the several who joined him that unless they had new questions, he had answered them as best he could.
Kimbrel earlier explained a month’s worth of rain fell over the area in a mere three days. Marc Austin with the National Weather Service said the downpour was a record. The rain filled the reservoir south of Pendleton, and the water flowing in exceeded the water going out. Kimbrel called that a “serious problem,” and he had to open the flow and let the water crash into McKay Creek.
“We knew that was going to be a problem for the downstream community,” he said during his presentation.
That made little difference in the breakout session to the folks giving Kimbrel the third degree.
Steve Alderman attended the presentation and tuned into some of the exchanges with Kimbrel. He and his wife, Dawn Alderman, and their family own Lavender Road Botanicals, 10 acres along McKay Creek where four years ago they planted several thousand lavender plants. They grow culinary lavender for cooking, and a mature crop was coming up for harvest, which they do by hand. Dawn Alderman uses some of the lavender in the goods she offers at Lavender Mercantile Co., her store on Pendleton’s Main Street.
The creek’s water swamped their farm. The waters are receding, but sections nearest the creek remain murky. Their small tractor is is stuck in feet of mud. The hundreds of sandbags they lined across their property helped only so much.
“The quicker we can get the lavender out of the water, the better,” Steve Alderman said.
Lavender farmers can not buy crop insurance, Alderman said. And replacing mature plants cost more than replacing young ones. Some plants show new growth in spite of the flooding, so they have hope the plant are going to make it.
“As long as they don’t get root rot, the plants should be OK,” he said.
Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District, lives near the lavender farm. He said he lost 6 pounds this weekend fighting the flooding, and Mulvihill is not a hefty guy. He also peppered Kimbrel with questions, but typical of Mulvihill, he was driving to a point.
He said he wants to see action “to make sure this never happens again” becomes a reality. This was property damage, he said, but if a child drowned?
Mulvihill said Kimbrel did what his authority allowed, and that meant relying on rain and snow melt and flooding metrics long out of date.
Mulvihill offered another question: What metrics should we use for flood control in the age of climate change?
Mulvihill said he wants to help build a coalition to take on the challenge of changing how the Bureau of Reclamation operates McKay Dam. That means bringing in local, state and federal voices, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the representatives this affects the most — the people living along the banks of McKay Creek.
Other officials are eyeing immediate help from the state. Umatilla County commissioners are drafting a letter Friday morning to ask Gov. Kate Brown to declare an emergency for Umatilla County.
Commissioner John Shafer said he is going to hand-deliver the letter to the governor’s office; he will at the Oregon Capitol to testify before the Legislature’s Ways and Means committee for funding to renovate the county jail and the Farm 2 project at Blue Mountain Community College.
State Sen. Bill Hansell of Athena and state Rep. Greg Baretto of Cove, both Republicans, tried that Monday, but Brown did not make the declaration.
Editor's Note: This version contains a change regarding the statement on crop insurance.