Pacific Northwest
This map shows the proposed location of the North Shore Levee segment along the Aberdeen and east Hoquiam waterfront. The final route of the levee is still under design. (Courtesy of HDR)

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

A 'once-in-a-generation' project could help Washington's coastal cities of Hoquiam and Aberdeen hold off economically devastating climate disasters.

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

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.”

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.

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.

The twin cities aren’t unique in their vulnerability: At least 35,000 Washingtonians are already at risk of coastal flooding, and 19,000 more are expected to be by 2050 as sea levels rise. But for nearly a decade, they’ve turned heads among scientists and officials working in the hazard-mitigation space for their passionate and single-focused pursuit of a $182.6-million solution that aims to not only keep future waves at bay, but also, they hope, reduce the cost of living and doing business near the coast — enough so that communities will have a shot at economically rebounding in the near term.

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