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Flood risk rises; county opts against pre-filling sandbags for time being

Apr 10, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Local officials are keeping an eye on flood risks after the National Weather Service recently warned the danger of such a natural disaster was moderate to high.

If certain climatic conditions are met, Fremont County Emergency Services plans to call up volunteers to fill sandbags.

"Moderate to high potential for flooding associated with snowmelt runoff is forecasted along the Wind River near Riverton," the National Weather Service announced March 25.

Acting on a state recommendation, the county in 2011 filled sandbags ahead of time, but Fremont County Emergency Management coordinator Kathi Metzler does not recommend doing that this year.

"The state is a little worried about our snow level," Metzler told Fremont County Commissioners on Tuesday. "Basically we're sitting at 132 percent of normal (snowpack), and in 2011 we were sitting at 122 (percent) at the same time."

If (sandbags) are not needed they become unusable in the future, and that wastes money.

"The polyurethane in the bag, it deteriorates. The sand dries, it becomes a brick," she added. "We basically wasted our time and energy pre-filling the stuff (in 2011)."

When they become rigid, the bags do not meld together when stacked.

The county board agreed with holding off filling sandbags until there have more reason to expect a flood.

Supplies ready

Metzler said the county has bags and sand ready if they are needed, which was not the case during flooding in 2010 and 2011. The state has positioned more empty bags around the state than it did in past years, she said in an interview.

Flooding in 2011 hit the north side of the county and the upper end of the Wind River, including Dubois through the Kinnear area. Flooding on the Wind River and Little Wind River near Riverton and the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River near Lander occurred in 2010.

During floods in 2011, Fremont County had to wait for deliveries of bags from out of state, according to Metzler, but the county is better prepared now.

"I can tell you we have adequate (supplies) in Fremont County at this time to at least begin flood-fighting efforts," she said.

Metzler and other officials are watching gauges in streams and weather patterns, and she expects to have enough notice of a flood to prepare for it.

"I think we will have a two- to three-day notice and (will be able to) call for volunteers to fill sandbags at strategic locations," she said.

Conditions that would cause a flood would be three to four days of temperatures in the Wind River Basin in the high 70s or low 80s, indicating warm enough temperatures on snowpack at high elevations to melt it rapidly, Metzler said. A rain storm at high elevations also would speed the runoff and add to it, she said.

More preparations?

Commissioner Stephanie Kessler suggested preparing more ahead of time.

"I guess lean on the side of being conservative and being prepared with the sand bag thing," she said. "It's OK if we have some sandbags made and we don't use them, but it shows the public we're prepared and we've been ready."

Commission chairman Doug Thompson recommended against filling sandbags immediately.

"I think we don't want to wait until the water's coming through the front door, but I would agree with (Metzler's) recommendation at this time," He said. "But monitor it, and if it's going to be a reality put out the call (for volunteers)."

Sandbags weigh so much that heavy equipment is required to move them, so Metzler recommended filling them at locations expected to flood, and waiting to fill them when the expectation is higher.

Kessler was concerned about Metzler's plan.

"How quickly can we come up with the inventory we need?" Kessler asked. "I do think the public wants to see us plan in advance rather than just struggling to meet an emergency."

Metzler thought a two- or three-day notice would be enough to call on volunteers and fill sandbags.

Commissioner Travis Becker recommended starting to announce that the county may need volunteers to prepare for a flood this spring.

Metzler said she would.

If a flood is imminent, the Emergency Management agency would call for people to help fill sandbags.

"We will be requesting volunteers through the local media and giving them a location to report to and things like that" Metzler said in an interview.

One area of concern is just up river from Diversion Dam. In 2011, the river cut across U.S. Highway 26.

About six families live in that area, and their residences would be threatened by a flood, Metzler said. A U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant helped Emergency Management acquire several weather radios the agency plans to offer to those residents.

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Fremont County Commission