Before Lucy Gonyea left Mount Rainier National Park for home Nov. 6, she inspected a section of the park’s access road she’d been worried about during the day as 4 in. of rain fell.
“I inspected the riprock and I thought it would hold,” Gonyea, the chief of facility management, said after looking over the historic road into the park. “But no one knew that we’d get 14 more inches of rain. When I came back in the morning the road was gone.”
On Nov. 6 and 7 for 36 hours, record-setting amounts of rain fell throughout the Pacific Northwest region, triggering floods, washouts and landslides as creeks and rivers raged over their banks and cut new paths. Eastern Washington was hit worst, blasted with 18 in. of rain that left two people dead. A house in nearby Packwood washed away.
The 235,625-acre national park with a 14,441-ft. mountain in the middle also took a savage punch.
“We don’t know the full extent of the damage and we won’t until spring,” said Lee Taylor, the park’s spokeswoman. “There are large areas we can’t get to yet and a lot of the park, we won’t know until the snow melts.”
But what they know wasn’t good.
The Nisqually Park entrance road, in the southwest corner, washed out in four places, taking out the utilities and sewer lines with the wash. Park workers hadn’t been able to work in the park administration building since the storm, setting up temporary offices in Tehoma Woods, 10 mi. outside the park.
The Carbon River entrance, at the northwest corner, was washed out as well and closed. And the two remaining entrances were closed for winter, and from what parks staff could tell, damaged as well.
“We’re equipped to deal with the 600 inches of snow we get every winter,” Taylor said. “But never, in the 107-year history of the park, have we had a disaster of this magnitude.”
“We have to fix one part so we can get to the next part we have to fix,” she added.
The enormous park, with two lodges, 25 active glaciers, a half dozen campgrounds and skiing areas and a groomed innertubing slope, hosts more than 1.3 million visitors a year, and feeds the economies of surrounding towns, including Packwood, Fairfax and Wilkeson.
With the damage done and even the peripheral areas inaccessible, the park is effectively closed, with no reopening date.
“So many folks depend on the people who visit for their livelihood,” Taylor said. “It’s an enormous grieving that we feel, the loss of the park and what it means to the area and the terrible uncertainty ahead.
Right now, the National Park Service estimates clean-up and rebuilding costs at $36 million. But no one has great faith in that number since no one’s been able to inspect 65 percent of the park.
“The maintenance road is a continuing construction site,” Taylor said. “We don’t know what all has happened in there.”
“We’re lucky to already have an experienced, year-round road crew of heavy equipment operators, some qualified for bulldozers, because of the amount of snow plowing we already do,” said Gonyea, who is a civil engineer and has worked in national parks all over the U.S., including Alaska. With six full-time crew and several who were called back from furlough, the park borrowed a couple of heavy equipment operators from other parks, Gonyea said.
Equipment used at the site included Caterpillar excavators and dozers, John Deere dozers and Volvo excavators.
The first broken segment of the Nisqually entry road reopened in December. Work on three more sections is underway, and when it’s done, the staff will be about six mi. into the park.
That entrance is named for the Nisqually River that forms the southwestern corner boundary of the park. The park’s main road runs parallel to the Nisqually, which is fed by a half dozen south-flowing creeks that run along roads off the main.
“In the 6 mi. to Longmire, where the park’s internal headquarters is, there are four disasters,” Gonyea said. “Tehoma Creek jumped the bank and took out a section of Westside Road. Kouts Creek jumped banks and jumped past the bridge it was supposed to go under. At milepost 5.2 the Nisqually took out the road and sheared the bank, destabilizing it. And then there’s Longmire.”
Just getting in to get started means a fight, Gonyea said.
“We’re using a backroad we don’t normally plow in the winter to get equipment and materials in so we’re using a grader,” she said. “You name it, we’re using it. We’ve got three bulldozers, excavators, front end loaders, inhouse and rentals.”
“Our equipment is old and we’re having frequent breakdowns and keeping our mechanics very, very busy,” Gonyea said. “The guys on the crew are phenomenal, they’ve accomplished a great deal, an amazing amount of work in just a few weeks.”
The first section of road had the double challenge of having the main power supply under it. While crews trucked in tons of rock to lay the base, they also had to trench for the new power line for conduit.
And as they progress into the park, yards at a time, they find new damage.
“We just found out we lost most of a campground,” Gonyea said. “Where things aren’t obviously destroyed, we’ve got to check to see if they’ve been undermined.”
Trees went down. Lots and lots of trees – and the ones not toppled in the floods were left with damaged roots and less soil to hold onto, so blow-downs are a lot more frequent.
“I’ve got everyone who goes in carrying a chainsaw, so they can take care of downed trees blocking access on the spot,” Gonyea said. “We had some huge old growth trees come down, far more than usual because their roots have been undermined.”
State Road 123, that runs north and south along the eastern edge of the park had extensive damage, Gonyea said. And Stevens Canyon Road was badly damaged. But both were closed for the season, and those repairs will come in spring.
The park will probably bring in contractors for the massive amount of work they anticipate needing in spring, Gonyea said.
“This winter, we’ll work where we can and we’ll restore the basics of access and utilities,” she said. “Most of the park is closed in the winter every year, and we’ll just see what we see when we can see.” CEG