Johnson Creek floods out Lents neighbors and businesses – again

Everyone thought the flood in December, 2007, was bad – but take a look at what this week’s major rainstorm did to businesses – and even to a PGE Substation – on SE Foster Road …

Looking east on SE Foster Road from SE 101st Avenue, the water on the roadway gives a whole new meaning to the term “traffic island” – the Springwater Trail crossing is deep beneath flood water.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Thirteen months and six days have passed since Johnson Creek last flooded Lents area businesses and neighbors. (Read about last year’s flood by CLICKING HERE.)

The 2009 New Year’s Day rainstorm did more than dampen holiday plans – it caused land to slide and creeks to swell throughout the metropolitan Portland area.

And, the third “10-year storm” within the decade also caused Johnson Creek to rise more than four feet above its bank, flooding Lents-area residents and businesses.

James Thompson says this is the worst flooding he’s seen. The blue steel building behind him in the distance – across “Lake Foster Road” – is his business: Thompson Auto Body.

Business owners work through rain and darkness
“Homeowners say they’ve had more flooding today, from 103rd Avenue and 109th Avenue, than they did in 1996,” James Thompson, owner of Thompson Auto Body, told us. “Ten years ago, Johnson Creek didn’t flood like it does today – all of a sudden, they’re under water.”

Thompson said his business has been at its current location, 10310 SE Foster Road, for 18 years. “Back in 1996, we moved everything up about a foot. And, we equipped the shop so we can lift cars high above the water level, and move our equipment quickly. With all the snow, and then the prediction of rain, we saw [a flood] coming.”

To this end, Thompson said they didn’t schedule any new auto body jobs, and started preparing for the storm. “We’ve now got about 6 inches of water in our building. With the water receding the way it is, we’ll probably come out OK, after we clean up the mess.  So, while we’re losing business, at this point, everything is ‘golden’ for me.”

Business loads up and moves, overnight
As in last year’s storm, Gary Sargent’s business – Sargent’s Motor Sports – is almost directly across the street from Thompson’s, at 10207 SE Foster Road.

Looking at his business, inundated by two to three feet of muddy water, Sargent moaned, “Another winter, and another flood. What a way to start out the year.”

Sargent said he got a call from staff members at the City of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services warning him about the impending flood. Throughout the day, and into the night, he and his staff and friends loaded their entire inventory of motorcycles, ATVs, shop equipment, and parts into semi trailers and trucks.

“We took everything that was within four feet of the floor. When the water goes down, we’ll have a big cleanup ahead of us – again.”

Muddy water, now about three feet deep, separates Gary Sargent from his business on SE Foster Road.

Owner blames ‘land filling fairies’
Sargent said appreciates the work the City of Portland has done to help reduce flooding along Johnson Creek. But, he again brought up the Freeway Land Company area of infill he says was never approved – yet still remains high above the creek’s flood stage.

“According to the last Army Corps of Engineers study, [Freeway Land’s] storage of ‘recyclable materials’ is where the water used to pond and flow,” Sargent maintained. “It seems that the ‘land filling fairies’ magically filled the property, so it is out of the 100 year flood plain.”

The City has a plan to work with homeowners along SE Foster Road, Sargent added. “I’m told that Mayor Sam Adams informed them that the only way that they can make their water retention pond work properly is to take all of their land and houses. I hope the city makes these people whole.”

Portland Bureau of Environmental Services Johnson Creek Watershed Manager, Maggie Skenderian, stays in touch with her coworkers, as they evaluate the current flooding conditions in Lents.

City monitors flooding
We caught up with Maggie Skenderian, Johnson Creek Watershed Manager for the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, at SE 111th Avenue, north of SE Foster Road.

“I can’t say the water level is record-setting,” Skenderian told us, “but this is a major flood event. It peaked out at 14.69 feet around nine o’clock this morning (January 2nd).”

The next reading taken at their Sycamore station showed that the creek had dropped to 14.64 feet. Skenderian told us that Johnson Creek’s bank is at 10 feet; and “overflow” occurs when it reaches 11 feet. “At 14 feet and above, we consider this to be a major flood – one of the top 10 or 15 events that we’ve measured at the creek.”

More water than ‘Restoration project’ could handle
We asked what impact the East Lents Flood Plain Restoration Project would have had during the current flood, if the construction work had been completed.

“This is not that kind of an event,” Skenderian replied. “At best, it will mitigate the flood events that happen every 10 years. I have a feeling this amount rainfall would’ve overflowed that ‘bathtub’ by a long shot. Mother Nature always has her way – we’ve already spent $30 million on our Johnson Creek restoration projects.”

(CLICK HERE to read our article about the progress of the East Lents Flood Plain Restoration Project.)

Jackson Green, his friends and neighbors fill sandbags at SE 111th Avenue and SE Harold Street. “We’re hoping to keep water from flooding our home, east of this location and SE 115th Avenue. Our next-door neighbors’ houses are already flooded,” he said. “We hope we can put around enough sandbags to prevent our home from flooding as well.”

City official comments on Freeway Land infill
We asked Skenderian if the infill on Freeway Land property contributed to the 2009 flood – and, if anything is being done to remove that landfill which some people call “unauthorized”.

“This area has been a flood plain since the [prehistoric] Missoula Floods,” replied Skenderian. “Folks are looking for someone, or something, to blame – and that ‘fill’ has been there well over a decade. This is the reality of the situation: This is a flood plain fed by a creek that overflows. It floods a lot. The money it would cost to remove that fill from Freeway Lands is astronomical. This is not to say it is impossible to be done someday – but we’re talking millions and millions of dollars to remove it.”

Skenderian recalls that the Schweitzer Project at SE 159th Avenue near SE Foster Road cost more than $5 million, and involved removing about 140,000 cubic yards of fill along Johnson Creek’s bank. She estimated the Freeway Land fill to be 10 times that size; and added that the land in question is private property.

“I know everyone wants to point fingers and try to find out who they can get to take responsibility for the flooding,” Skenderian concluded. “The truth of the matter is, people should live and work outside of a flood plain. This area has had a very long history of flooding – long before anyone could fill in at the Freeway Land property.  This is not to say that that fill does not make matters worse, or that nothing can be done about it to remove it.”

This now-flooded Portland General Electric electrical substation on SE Foster Road was taken off-line until the flood water recede and the equipment can be serviced.

Electrical substation flooded
Sargent and Thompson pointed out that the Portland General Electric (PGE) substation near both of their businesses was also flooded.

We asked a PGE worker if this assertion was true, as he climbed into a large dump truck towing an industrial-strength vacuum system.

“We had between 2 and 2½ feet in the main control building at the Foster Road Substation,” he said. “We got to our dispatcher about 2 a.m. this morning to let them know we were losing the battle.  So we had to cut power off at the station.”

-7 PGE crews will use the vacuum towed behind their truck to start cleaning out their substation’s control room as soon as the water recedes.

PGE’s Public Information Officer, Steve Corson, confirmed the story. “Two feeders [major distribution lines] coming to the substation that supplies about 3,200 customers were affected. Power went out about 5:00 a.m., and was restored at 8:20 a.m.”

The power grid system is designed to provide flexibility when things affect a substation, noted Corson. “It is handled, in part, through our downtown control center – but a lineman has to switches in the field.”

The water was deep at the intersection of SE Foster Road and SE 111th Avenue – and was closed to traffic most of the day.

Neighbor praises BES warning
Long time Lents area Johnson Creek activist Joyce Beedle, a homeowner at SE 108th and Foster Road, called to say that her home was still above water.

“We owe a big thank you to BES and Mayor Sam Adams. On New Year’s Morning, they called to say that the National Weather Service was predicting a flood so we could do what is necessary to protect ourselves. We weren’t at home, and thus, weren’t aware that the creek was on the rise. We came home and sandbagged our place.”

Most of her other neighbors are sitting high and dry, but some of their outbuildings have been flooded, Beedle reported. “We don’t expect the City to come and take care of us individually; I found this worthy of praise.”

Rain not record-breaking
Dan Keirns a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said total rainfall was 3.04 inches as measured at the airport. (However, a Southeast gauge measured 3.83 inches over the first two days of the New Year.)

“This was a good heavy rain, but not nearly a record,” Keirns said. “It was a record for a January 2nd, breaking the record previous record recorded in 1987 by .10″. But it isn’t unusual to get heavy rains this time of year.”

Keirns said things would dry out over the weekend. “We’re expecting another system to come in Sunday night or Monday, and will bring about half as much this storm.

“However, we could get hammered again next week,” he forecasted.

Get the latest weather forecast from the experts!
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© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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