The Seattle Rain: A Love/Hate Relationship


A functioning floodplain without development Photo by: Bryn Fluharty
Growing up in Seattle I grew to have a love of the rain. Many of my childhood memories are in one way or another associated with rain. From laying in bed listening to the pitter patter on the roof to sprinting between the raindrops during a soccer game or cutting down my families Christmas tree bundled up in all possible forms of rain gear. Some memories are not so fond however and I still cringe at the sound of a heavy rain after years of dealing with flooding.

It is 2am and my mother wakes me up. I can hear the sound of rain falling heavily outside which meant one thing, flooding at our rental. Every time it rained this hard my mother got the call from her tenants that the basement was flooding, again. This would prompt a late night drive the 15 minutes away where my mother would spend the late part of the evening and early morning digging trenches around the rental until to try and stem the flow of water into the house. As a single mother with two young children she relied on the rental for a significant part of our income and had to take care of issues such as flooding on her own as my brother and I were too young to help.

The problem that we and so many others faced was an issue of poor planning. When my family first bought the property the information was not disclosed to us that it had issues with flooding.  The house is in the Thornton Creek Floodplain and so is particularly vulnerable to flooding. The Thornton Creek watershed runs from Shoreline south into North Seattle and finally empties into Lake Washington at Matthews Beach Park. Like many urban streams and rivers development has encroached upon the creek and does not allow for the natural processes to occur. This does not mean that there is no flooding; it means that flooding will occur and will cause damage to the development that gets in its way.

Living in a floodplain carries with it significant risks to its human inhabitants. Many families like mine incurred thousands of dollars worth of damage as well as emotional stress because of flooding. According to the City of Seattle Thornton Creek has had major incidents in 1996/7, 2003 and 2006 with other s in 1990, 1986, and 1978. In 2007 the area experienced a 100-year storm event which caused flooding despite having the Meadowbrook retaining pond which failed to protect the residents. This initiated a lawsuit against the city by local residents due to damage caused by flooding. As the impacts of climate change continue we will see more events like this.

Development in floodplains is bad for people as well as wildlife. Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, cutthroat trout, steelhead, and rainbow trout have all been found in the creek. The full potential for fish habitat in the creek is in part due to the loss of connectivity to the floodplain and the lack of habitat such as deep pools, large woody debris and riparian cover (click here to find out more about Thornton creek). The removal of these elements are all associated with encroaching development.

Flooding in the house has been greatly reduced in part due to the Meadowbrook Retaining pond as well as significant modifications that my mother made at her expense. As a part time teacher and single mother the flooding acted as a huge financial and emotional drain for my mother and our family. If initial planning had been done in a smart way my family and others in the area would not have had to deal with these issues.

Programs such as the National Floodplain Insurance Program (NFIP) run thorough the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) subsidize development in floodplains. This program encourages development in floodplains and further indebts our government as more claims come through due to damage from flooding. The National Wildlife Federation is working hard to encourage smart development and stop encouraging further development of our floodplains. This will help our wildlife as well as our communities so that I and so many others can enjoy the sound of rain instead of worrying that it is simply the drum beat of impending flooding.

Do you have stories about flooding? We want to hear them!