When Echo residents began 2020, they probably didn’t realize how much bleach they would be using this year.
The cleaning substance has been in demand since March because of the pandemic, but before that, Echo residents were using it to battle mold in homes that flooded during the worst flood in the town’s 116-year history.
Mayor Jeanie Hampton remembers bleach and other cleaning supplies being dropped off at Echo Community Church after February 7’s “500-year flood” hit.
“We had one side of the basement full of logical things like shovels and bleach and cleaning supplies and gloves,” she said. “You would think people knew we were going into COVID.”
The church used food donations to hand out free meals to anyone who needed them during the week of the flood, and distributed other supplies to anyone in need, including some Stanfield residents. Crews of volunteers, armed with everything from wheelbarrows to chain saws, showed up wherever there was a need. When another flood hit in May, people cleaned out some of the same properties again using supplies left over from February.
Echo School was temporarily turned into a shelter for displaced residents during the first day of the floods, but Raymon Smith, superintendent of Echo School District, said since the flooding happened on a Friday, students didn’t have to miss any school at the time.
“We were back in school Monday morning,” he said. “We had some areas that were completely cut off in the Reith Road area, so we worked with those families, but mostly kids still showed up Monday morning even when we said they didn’t need to.”
Those days of school became even more important when class was canceled a little over a month later because of COVID-19. Then the town saw more flooding in May.
Smith said he was gratified to the way everyone from the fire department to the church to city staff quickly banded together and did an “amazing job” of taking care of everyone. Hampton had similar sentiments, and said Echo residents have shown their resilience throughout the year by supporting each other and having a good attitude.
“The second time the flood came through, farmers were laughing and saying, ‘When you find this part, will you send it back up to me because it came off my wheel line,’” she said.
While residents may have been able to keep their sense of humor, the damage they suffered during the flooding was very real, and so are fears it will happen again.
“People are really concerned about another event,” city administrator David Slaght said.
He said the Umatilla River’s flooding on Feb. 7 permanently altered the course and shape of the river around Echo, slicing new paths through farmland.
The difference between aerial photos taken years ago and ones taken in 2020 are obvious, he said. A high-water event in May brought more flooding, and Slaght said he — like many Echo residents — believes that the changed landscape will make flooding in Echo more common.
Slaght said the effects on Echo’s 700 residents still linger seven months later, even as the rest of the world turned its attention to the global pandemic that has also hurt residents.
“A lot of people are still recovering,” he said. “We still have a couple of homes that are not livable on the south side of town. There’s just only so much money to go around, and there was just so much damage.”
Gov. Kate Brown has convened a state task force of stakeholders to address the flooding, but Echo and Stanfield-area property owners along the river have also formed the Mid-Umatilla River Coalition, or MURC for short.
Slaght said the coalition hopes the end result of their efforts will be soundly engineered projects along the river that prevent flooding while also protecting the river’s ecosystem.
“You’ve got to protect the fish, you’ve got to protect the wildlife, but you’ve also got to protect human life and property,” he said. “We really need federal help to get different pieces of the puzzle rolling.”
Lloyd Piercy is one of the farmers who has been severely impacted by 2020’s floods. He estimated he lost 6 to 8 acres of his farm when the river changed course, not to mention the “devastating,” widespread destruction of assets, such as blueberry bushes and trellises. It took heavy equipment and weeks of work by hand crews to clean things up, which the farm had to pay out of pocket.
“Our crop was probably half of what it should have been, and we spent weeks after weeks scooping gravel out of there, trying to make it farmable again,” he said.
Piercy said he wants to see the Bureau of Reclamation fix its berms near his property that washed away during the flood, and to clear the tree trunks and other debris off dams and canal diversions along the river that he said pushed water outward onto surrounding properties.
He said MURC was bringing together some “really energetic, bright people” to work on problems along the river, and he hopes the coalition is able to effect those changes and others.
“I’ve had flooding every year for the last four years; this is just the worst of it,” he said. “It really does need to be dealt with, and it can’t just be one farmer.”