Congressman Derek Kilmer sounded enthusiastic when he talked about how the city of Aberdeen is close to securing $50 million for the North Shore Levee (NSL) project.
“This is a big deal for Aberdeen and for Grays Harbor County,” Kilmer said to The Daily World. “Getting this pivotal funding means the community can address flooding and avoid future property damage. It means the community can enable future investments in affordable housing and economic development by pulling some of these properties out of the flood plain.”
Once built and approved, the levee will remove about $1.2 million of flood insurance premiums. It will protect 3,100 properties, and 994 businesses, according to The Daily World. The levee will also maintain 842 jobs and create new ones.
Kilmer, who was born and raised on the Olympic Peninsula, said he knows the challenges that flooding creates for communities. Kilmer said when he first started in Congress, he wanted to help “give folks a break” on high flood insurance costs.
“When we saw terrible floods in Aberdeen and Hoquiam in (January) 2015, it made clear the need for a comprehensive plan to address the issue,” Kilmer said. “At that point, my office started working with city leaders in Aberdeen and Hoquiam to identify the major problem areas and to craft solutions to help pull properties out of the flood plain and to keep businesses and homes out of harm’s way.”
The discussions for a levee, which is part of the Aberdeen-Hoquiam Flood Protection Project, did not start with a levee the scope and size of the North Shore Levee, according to Rick Sangder, public works director for the City of Aberdeen. The NSL project started as a $50,000 levee design in North Aberdeen. Then it morphed into a “million-dollar” project to protect the downtown Aberdeen core.
“It was quickly determined to be inadequate because it would divide our neighborhoods into areas with flood protection and those without flood protection,” Sangder said.
Sangder recalled having worked with Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay and Nicholas Carr, who was one of Kilmer’s aides. He said the meetings then were to change the project into one that protected all of the neighborhoods between the Wishkah and Hoquiam rivers.
“It was all what-ifs and rainbows at the time, but those discussions shaped the final decision to add Hoquiam,” Sangder said. “We worked at the behest and encouragement of Congressman Kilmer, who promised to support the expanded project to his fullest ability.”
But, Sangder also said his “greatest contribution,” to the team was hiring Kris Koski, the former city engineer for Aberdeen, and Nick Bird, current city engineer for Aberdeen.
Aberdeen Mayor Pete Schave was an Aberdeen City Council member in 2015, and he recalled having doubts during those early discussions.
“I thought we didn’t have a chance,” Schave said. “With a lot of external help, particularly the Office of Chehalis Basin and Congressman Kilmer, we have exceeded all expectations that we had back then.”
Then in January 2022, the Grays Harbor area was reminded again why more permanent flood protection was necessary. If there had been a levee in January 2022, it would have stopped the flooding, according to Shay.
Then in August 2022, the confidence of local, state, and federal officials to protect the area from flooding increased as they showed up to Zelasko Park to celebrate taking another step toward obtaining the funding needed for a $50 million Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant.
Schave’s confidence has increased a lot since the 2015 discussions.
“The BRIC (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) notification makes me feel confident the project is going to get completed and I am proud that (Federal Emergency Management Agency) has confidence in our team,” Schave said. “They are making a great investment in our community that will pay dividends in our future.”
Schave sees risk reduction and economic relief in the near future for the area.
“We are currently constructing the first flood protection project in the Fry Creek Pump Station, and with the award we are just working on the last puzzle piece to fund construction of the second phase,” Schave said. “Relating to economic relief, this can come in many forms from an anticipated reduction or elimination of required flood insurance rates to developmental potential in areas currently mapped in a flood zone.”
Since the city’s BRIC selection, Schave said the city will be going through a National Environmental Policy Act Review Process, which will include an open house and public comment periods. The city will also provide updates to the timeline as it progresses, and add other information about the levee for the public. Currently, construction on the actual levee will start near the end of 2023, or near the start of 2024. The levee would not be completed until 2025. It wouldn’t be approved until 2026.
In addition to the BRIC grant being a big step in building the levee, Schave is thankful for the support from Grays Harbor County commissioners, who spent $250,000 in 2015 to complete the Timber Works Master Plan.
“That plan laid the foundation for the Aberdeen Hoquiam Flood Protection Project and was instrumental to our success in securing our significant funding,” Schave said.
Schave said the work with Kilmer and his staff has been “wonderful.”
“The congressman and his team helped foster the relationship between the two communities and realize the common benefit that could be achieved through cooperation and collaboration,” Schave said.
While other partners have helped the process along, Schave said Kilmer has been a constant who has provided “unbelievable support,” to the Grays Harbor communities.
“A perfect example of this is Congressman Kilmer’s efforts securing the 2021 Congressional Community Project funding (that) provided the flexibility to reallocate resources to initiate construction of the Fry Creek Pump Station,” Schave said. “And initiate the final design and permitting phases on both the North Shore Levee and North Shore Levee West segments.”
Sangder said it feels good to know Aberdeen will be in a better position with the North Shore Levee.
“This project is too important to fail, but the enormity of it all is sometimes daunting,” Sangder said. “We have a fantastic team of experts in HDR Engineering Inc. and have been truly blessed to have so much support from the City Council and most importantly the Public Works Committee Chairpersons Tim Alstrom, and Dee Anne Shaw, who have taken up the cause and pushed the important agenda.”
Kilmer said the project couldn’t be done without Sangder, Koski — now port engineer for the Port of Grays Harbor — and Bird.
“We’ve seen elected leaders, including the mayor and City Council in both Aberdeen and Hoquiam, helping in big ways,” Kilmer said. “The staff have been real MVPs — folks like Koski, Bird, Sangder, and Brian Shay. They’ve done vital work to get this project moving.”