Many American communities, including Everson, are struggling to catch up as climate change intensifies flood risk.
Federal rainfall mapping for Washington state, which underlies decisions about infrastructure and flood risk, dates to 1973.
In Whatcom County, where Everson is, Federal Emergency Management Agency data suggests nearly 5,900 properties are in areas of special flood hazard, indicating they have a 1% chance to flood each year and that purchasing flood insurance is almost always mandatory, Roberts said. The First Street Foundation, which incorporates climate data into a similar analysis, finds some 14,500 properties are at risk there.
“The hundred-year flood definition has not kept up with the changes we’re seeing, and at this point it’s doing more harm than good because it’s more confusing to people,” Roberts said, referring to a common benchmark used to determine who needs insurance.
Flooding and housing
Flooding spurred by a warming climate twisted Everson’s most urgent problem – housing – into an emergency.
Before the flooding, Everson, like many U.S. communities, was mired in a housing crisis. The pandemic only added fuel to a sizzling market as urbanites sought homes near Everson – many looking for space and Cascade mountain air.
Developers couldn’t keep up with the torrid growth. Some Everson residents couldn’t keep up with the soaring prices. The local housing authority in recent years restricted who could join its waitlists for public and subsidized housing because these queues stretched several years long.
Whatcom County had a 1 percent vacancy rate for rental apartments before the flood struck, according to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research. Meanwhile, home prices in the county soared about 23 percent from the first quarter of 2021 to the same period of 2022. Then the floodwaters forced 300 families from their homes and into that dismal rental market. It also led to the closure of low-income apartments in Everson, an acknowledgment that parts of this community couldn’t be restored, even though they’ve been there for decades.
“The housing crisis — it just compounds any effects the flood had,” Perry said. “I don’t think we’ll ever catch up.”
For Perry, the part-time mayor of Everson, floodwaters scrambled most everything in his life.
Perry’s grandson was trapped by floodwaters and required Brevik to scoop him up. Fourteen properties that Perry’s family manages in nearby Sumas flooded, forcing renters away and requiring repair.
After the waters receded, Perry began to shoulder the dual, and sometimes dueling, responsibilities of housing Everson residents and leading the town’s recovery while also seeking permanent solutions to redirect future floodwaters or move people from their path.
During an early May visit to Everson, many homes remained gutted, with sandbags and flood debris still littering some yards. Residents continued to live in hotels, in trailers outside their unlivable houses or with friends elsewhere. Some teetered on the edge of homelessness.