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Flooding Costs Accumulate in Idaho

Late winter, early spring rains and snow melt have caused large amounts of damage to infrastructure in Idaho. This week, Governor Butch Otter spelled it out for reporters.

“We right now have 32 counties under a disaster declaration in the state. We’ve got a running total of almost $30 million of infrastructure that we know on roads and bridges that’s going to have to be replaced," Otter said at a Monday press conference in Boise.

"I would also inform you that we recently received a negative letter from the federal government on my request for a federal declaration for these same areas and we are appealing that, but we have, obviously with a lot of other things that are going on in Washington, D.C., we don’t have an idea of how that appeal is going to go,” he said. 

Of the 32 counties the governor mentioned are seven in north Idaho: Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Shoshone, Benewah, Latah and Clearwater. With perhaps more repairs not yet accounted for, he’s hoping the state won’t have to foot all of the bill.

“Now remember, we passed a disaster fund of $52 million. Two million of that went into replace money that was already committed. So we had roughly $50 million left. And some of that, we’re going to have to participate with the local cities and counties as well on infrastructure that they’ve lost,” Otter said.

The governor also estimates Idaho’s agricultural sector has sustained damages of $100 million.

His $30 million damage estimate for the state doesn’t yet include anything from the seven north Idaho counties.

In the Panhandle, river and stream levels have slowly receded below flood stage. The St. Joe River at St. Maries could reach that level again Sunday or Monday with the rain that’s in the forecast. And Joe Epler will be watching it and telling weather authorities what he sees.

Epler has lived in St. Maries for all of his 64 years. He lives about 50 feet from the St. Joe and he seems to have an encyclopedic memory for the floods that have covered his town over the years.

“If you look back through the history, we had a flood in 1917. We had one in 1933. We had a winter one in ’33 and a spring one in ’33," Epler said. "’38 was a spring flood. ’48 was a spring flood. ’74 was a winter flood. ’96 was a winter flood. Most of ’64 was a winter flood.”

It’s one thing to remember a list of flood years. It’s another to remember the details from a particular flood more than 52 years ago.

“Yeah, ’64, I remember, it was ice. It was Christmas, six days before Christmas, living here. About 48 hours to get out, move our stuff out," Epler said. "It was not only high water, but we had an ice jam on the St. Maries bridge that crosses the St. Joe as you come into town. The ice jammed up there and it caused a very rapid rise in the river above the river bridge.”

He remembers that flood was trouble. It had the potential to cause major damage to the town’s levees, but he remembers the weather turned cold and the water level slowly receded.

He can recite details from most of the other floods during his lifetime too.

“Yeah, well I guess when you live next to that event, I guess it sticks in your mind more than other things that aren’t as dramatic.”

Epler says the biggest percentage of the severe floods on the St. Joe have come during the winter months, December, January and February.

And that’s made this year’s high water somewhat unusual. For one thing, he says, if you check the 100-year records, very few floods happen in March. And then the evidence, back in January, didn’t indicate a potential flood. The snowpack then was about 72% of normal. But then came the March rains.

“Now we’re about 113-to-120-percent of normal,” he said.

But, as high as the river has been running the last few weeks, Epler says the water hasn’t topped the levee nearest his house as it did in 1933 and 1996, the highest levels he knows of. The 1996 flood is still vivid in his mind.

“I’m on an elevated basement so my living quarters are above it and we had about eight feet of water in the basement," he remembered.

But he’s had nothing like that this year and he thinks the worst of the high water has passed.

“What we’re getting from now until June will be higher elevation and it comes off at a slower rate.”

He says hot weather in late April and May could melt that higher elevation snow faster than usual and cause some additional flooding.