The Franklin County commission declared a state of emergency Monday morning as rapidly melting snow and ice wreaked havoc on dozens of rural county roads.
The commission voted unanimously to declare the emergency and to allow its public works department to skirt its normal bidding requirements so it can quickly buy sand, gravel and other materials needed to shore up roads to protect life and public safety.
Time is limited as Franklin County’s agriculture community revs up for the 2017 growing season. All of the nearly three dozen roads currently closed serve farms. Farmers began preparing fields and in some cases planting crops in early February.
The earliest fields at Wallula are often planted by now, though the planting season extends into early March. Dale Lathim, executive director of Potato Growers of Washington, said its vital that roads be open to trucks carrying seed potatoes and other material to fields.
He said growers are frustrated but not alarmed.
“I’m pretty confident that the potato growers will find a way to make it work,” he said.
Asparagus is Washington’s earliest crop. Gary Larsen, a Pasco grower and chair of the Washington State Asparagus Condition said there are “lakes” in his fields, but he’s more concerned frozen ground could prevent some early field work.
He said its still too early to cut back the early asparagus ferns, which set the stage for the spring harvest.
“I’m not really seeing problems,” he said.
Preliminary estimates peg the damage to Franklin County roads at more than $2 million, a figure that will keep climbing as wet weather and drivers contribute to further deterioration of water-weakened pavement.
Officials say the flooding is equivalent to a 100-year flood.
Franklin is not the only county struggling with rural flooding. Benton, Grant and other neighbors are in similar straits and Eastern Washington leaders will likely ask Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a regional emergency, which could free up repair money.
A spokeswoman for Inslee said he has been updated on the flooding and state road crews are working “around the clock” to protect lives and infrastructure.
To date, there has been no formal request from any of the affected counties for assistance. Typically, the governor issues a proclamation at the request of Emergency Management Services in coordination with local communities.
Franklin County closed eight additional stretches of road Monday afternoon, bringing the total to 40 spots throughout the county. Roads were closed for reasons ranging from water over the roadway to compromised road beds to complete washouts. It will update its closure list online.
You really are taking your life and putting it on the line.
Commissioner Brad Peck, Franklin County
The county public works department reported it ran out of traffic cones to block some stretches. The county is expected to call in its reserve deputies to police barricades to keep drivers from going around them, a common occurrence over the weekend. The county administrator said at least one vehicle had to be pulled from water.
County commissioners implored drivers to respect barricades, saying the weight of vehicles is not helping and drivers risk their lives on dangerous passages.
“You really are taking your life and putting it on the line,” said Commissioner Brad Peck.
Keith Johnson, the county’s administrator, said the county will rely on reserves, the county road fund and insurance to repair the damage. At the moment though, he said the public works department is essentially trying to control the damage.
County crews were in Connell during the weekend helping with flood-relief efforts that included opening canals to drain the water.
The road closures are inconvenient for Franklin County’s agricultural community. With fields and some equipment under water, farmers are unable to proceed.
Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond spent much of the weekend visiting with agricultural leaders to encourage them to be judicious about putting heavy equipment on water-soaked roads.
County officials note that it may be an impossible task. Virtually every road in the county’s northern area provides a critical link to farms.