The Oregon coast is famous for its winter storms, which can make for a cozy getaway if you’re holed up in a beachfront hotel. But if you’ve driven much along scenic US Hwy 101, it soon becomes clear that this country road is pretty much the only way to get from one waterfront town to another. With winter coming on, storm surges can cause flooding so severe that coastal traffic simply halts. The City of Wheeler, 17 miles south of Cannon Beach, is doing something about it, and taking the opportunity to protect their community from even bigger threats. Joanne Rideout reports.
Script below or scroll down to Listen: [3:55]
Wheeler City Manager Juliet Hyams said the worst recent flooding event happened in 2015.
“…Which caused 101 to be closed for awhile, our post office was closed for two months. And our business district was flooded, because we have Gervais Creek, runs actually under our downtown, and when the culvert backed up in the dark of night because it became full of debris and branches and so forth, it flooded downtown, and it‘s you know, not only is it bad for business but it’s dangerous for our staff and council to be out there in the dark trying to keep the culvert from backing up.”
Since then, the quaint town on Nehalem Bay has been pursuing FEMA funding to engineer a better way to handle such emergencies that doesn’t leave the community underwater. Hyams became city manager in 2018, and saw immediately that Wheeler needed funding. She learned that despite its charm, the federal government classifies the rural city as “small and impoverished.” Even the county considers it disadvantaged. Fortunately, these drawbacks have translated into funding.
Hyams has secured a FEMA planning grant to figure out how to alleviate flooding. The city is looking at a process used in Ashland called “daylighting” where streams buried by infrastructure are uncovered and restored, which can prevent flash flooding.
“Or just running a bigger pipe under Hwy 101, so that the stormwater goes into the bay instead of right – basically it goes right under the old Wheeler hotel right now.”
Hyams said global warming, logging and fires all intensify the likelihood of flooding. And it’s gotten worse in recent years.
Wheeler Mayor Heidi Stacks said there are logging sites on the hills above downtown.
“And we have a small barrier of trees between the town and the logging sites, and we’re getting a lot of debris that’s coming down from them and a lot of silt runoff.”
The FEMA planning grant is for $130,000, and they’ll likely receive more funds to implement plans.
Hyams said the city will have lots of support from coordinating agencies, like the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Fish and Wildlife, The Port of Tillamook Bay, and U.S Congressman Kurt Schrader, who support efforts that will benefit not only Wheeler but the entire region.
Hyams said flooding is a constant worry for city administration. She’ll meet later this month with the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, to get the planning process underway.
Hyams said Wheeler has come to view the 2015 flood as a wake up call.
“The silver lining of that flood in 2015 was that it really prompted Wheeler to get its act together in terms of emergency preparedness, and we have weekly radio drill so that neighbors, citizens, stay in practice in case of a Cascadia event when you can’t count on cell phones. We have a fully stocked emergency shelter in our city hall. Heidi has filled it with food and she’s partnered with the Emergency Volunteer Corps of Nehalem Bay. So again, that is of regional significance. Even though Wheeler is a teeny-tiny little town, we are driving innovation and regional improvements. Through these grants and partnerships and interagency collaboration.”
The Emergency Volunteer Corps of Nehalem Bay is recognized statewide for its innovative disaster prep. Wheeler partners with EVCNB in the yellow radio program, which teaches locals how to use yellow walkie talkies in an emergency. In an area that is statistically due for a 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami any day now, Wheeler administrators are doing their best to use a major flood event as motivation to turn their town’s vulnerabilities into strengths.
I’m Joanne Rideout reporting for KMUN.
You can listen to Joanne’s interview with Wheeler City Manger Juliet Hyams by clicking the link below