Financial relief still on hold for homeowners in Whatcom impacted by 2021 floods

Nooksack River flooding, Nov. 2021. // Courtesy of Brandon Parsons, with aerial support by LightHawk
Nooksack River flooding, Nov. 2021. (Courtesy: Brandon Parsons, with aerial support by LightHawk)



Homeowners in Whatcom County have been waiting nearly two years for financial relief from flooding that devastated communities in northwest Washington and parts of Canada — and now, they have to wait even longer.

Federal funding was supposed to come this week for 12 homeowners whose houses were destroyed nearly two years ago during the flooding of November 2021. However, that funding has been delayed, again. 

“It’s been a big, big blow to those property owners who are displaced, living in trailers, you know, having a lot of challenges that they can’t manage right now,” said Deb Johnson, river and flood engineer for Whatcom County. 

The funding is through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The Whatcom County Flood Control Zone District applied for the grant in April 2022 so that cities and counties could buy out homeowners whose properties are uninhabitable due to the floods.

The money has been delayed a few times as more information was required, but it was supposed to come early this month. Then, on August 31, the county learned the funding was delayed again.

This time, it’s on hold because FEMA has put Immediate Needs Funding restrictions on the Disaster Relief Fund, which dropped below a certain balance, as so many natural disasters warranted using the fund this year. Those restrictions prioritize the remaining dollars for life-saving measures.

There is a request from the Biden administration to put an additional $16 billion into the fund, but that needs congressional approval. In the meantime, homeowners who are displaced in Whatcom will have to keep waiting to move on from the floods, with the next flood season right around the corner. 

Many of the folks whose homes were damaged did have flood insurance, but that doesn’t meet all of the needs that come after flooding. If you live in a floodway and your home is damaged more than 50%, you cannot rebuild that home. 

More than half of the homeowners waiting for buyouts live in a floodway.

“People invest a lot of their life into a spot and some of them didn’t know they were in the floodway or the floodplain,” said Chris Elder, a senior watershed planner for Whatcom County Public Works.

A floodway is where the deepest and fasting moving water is found during a flood. New homes can’t be developed in floodways, but they can be in floodplains. Elder said there needs to be proactive approaches for these communities, like communication about risk, or building restrictions.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing developments in places where we know it’s going to flood again,” Johnson said.