Family farm plans evacuation routes, livestock shelters
By STEVE BROWN
ADNA, Wash. -- When the Chehalis River flooded in December 2007, Brad and Meg Gregory started the day with water up to the road. They had already survived the 100-year flood in 1996 and expected this one to be no worse.
"Reports never called this a major event until after it hit," Brad Gregory said.
By day's end, they had lost 75 percent of their flock of dairy sheep and saw major damage to their farm and home.
"We moved the animals into the shed, then into the barn, but the water kept rising," he told about 40 people visiting his Black Sheep Creamery.
The flooding was the result of clearcutting timber along the river's headwaters in the Cascades, he said. A landslide created a logjam; when it burst it released a wave downstream.
Soon the rising waters forced the Gregory family into their house, where they quickly moved upstairs. A volunteer in a jetboat whisked them to higher ground, where a helicopter picked them up and took them to shelter.
Patty Kaija was one of many people who helped in the aftermath of the flood. Her group, Friends of Lewis County Animal Shelter, pitched in to rescue, feed and shelter many of the animals caught in the flood.
"Brad and Meg did everything right, and they still had high mortality," Kaija said. "At some point, your life is more important than your animals."
The flood was not standing water, she recalled. It had a swift current and was pretty much gone the next day. Survivors returned to find their fields covered in silt and many of their animals dead.
"The livestock mortalities were played down in the news because there was no one to report it to," Kaija said. "The true numbers were about 5,000 lost here in Lewis County."
Brad Gregory wondered how even 25 percent of his ewes survived. "Best we can guess is that the survivors just stood on those that had already died."
The day after the flood, the first priority was picking up animals, he said. "Fifty or 60 people were helping us out, some of them with big equipment. Many of them, we never learned their names."
Gregory said the carcasses were hauled off, and along with the other dead livestock they were trucked to Eastern Washington. "I don't know what they did with them."
The receding floodwaters left deep silt across the area. "A lot of people suddenly had someone else's soil," he said. "The field across the road had lots of bumps in it; it's nice and level now. The winter wheat in it was tilled under. The silt had good, high pH and was good in micronutrients, but no nitrogen or phosphorus."
There was no insurance except on the vehicles, Meg Gregory said. "FEMA did what they said they'd do," she said, but that helped only the home, not the business.
About 300 tons of hay was donated by hay grower associations in Washington and Oregon, Kaija said. "The trucks were rolling as soon as they could get through."
Now the Gregorys and other farmers are looking to government websites to monitor river levels and weather forecasts. They know there are no guarantees that a "one-time event" will never happen again, Brad Gregory said.
Though he and many other farmers and ranchers are still recovering from the 2007 flood, they're making plans for the next one.
As in most rural areas, evacuation routes are few. Still, he is considering what options he has when the main road is cut off.
He's preparing to build a ramp for his sheep to get them into the barn loft. "We're able to bribe the sheep with grain to move them."
He is also considering building a "critter pad," a raised area in the field where the animals can take refuge in a flood. That idea, however, doesn't square with his opposition to town people building up areas in a flood zone, so he's having second thoughts about that.
Having rebuilt their herd to 77 ewes -- a mixed herd of East Freisian, Rideau-Arcott and Lacuane sheep -- the Gregorys have returned to full-time cheese production. They wholesale much of their product to grocery stores and cheese shops in Puyallup, Portland and Seattle and to a local winery, but they are devoted to their direct-marketing efforts as well, selling to restaurants and through surrounding farmers' markets.
Black Sheep Creamery: www.blacksheepcreamery.com
Friends of Lewis County Animal Shelter: www.folcas.org
Tilth Producers of Washington: www.tilthproducers.org
Washington State University Small Farms Team: http://smallfarms.wsu.edu