AS FOR THE FIRST THING DIL GRIFFITHS LOST IN 2007, nothing will bring it back. Not federal aid, not state-commissioned studies on river hydraulics, not the love and good will of well-meaning neighbors. Funny, all he was doing when he lost what can never return was mowing the lawn. Out on River Road they called it brush hogging—mulching down the monster growth of tangled weeds that explode from the soil in this damp, cloud-covered corner of southwestern Washington. When your field needed brush hogging you called Dil Griffiths, the Welshman with the shock of silver hair. Known throughout western Lewis County for his llamas—eight head of the shaggy, long-necked animals on his 10 acres—Dil also raised and sold hay and took up small carpentry projects, skills learned growing up in the old country, in the village of Talybont, Wales. Call Dil to brush hog your land and he’d wheel his bucking, sputtering 1958 Massey Ferguson tractor down the highway, towing a low-slung rotor-blade mower, roll onto your property, and rid your fields of overgrowth.
So there he was on a summer day, August 8, brush hogging a neighbor’s weed-choked pasture when they swarmed. Hornets. Dil’s deathly allergic. Ten years earlier a sting sent a wave of numbness over his body before he slurred to his wife Sue that he was going to the bathroom to sit in a cool, dark place, where he slumped off the toilet and onto the floor. Paramedics were called to revive him. The next time, on the back steps of the house, a hornet sting rendered him mute. Sue could see the whites of his eyes as the pupils rolled toward the back of his skull. He collapsed like sunflower stalk hacked at the base. Paramedics again, and a hospital bed. He bought epinephrine—an injection could save his life from a sting, the doctor said—and he usually kept a dose of the drug close at hand.
Not today. Atop the tractor, he felt a prick at the side of his neck. Hornets orbited his head. Shit. Must’ve run over a nest in the weeds, stirred the buggers into a frenzy. He hit the tractor’s kill switch and jumped. But the machine had momentum and when he hit the ground the back wheel rolled over his legs. The left leg, still pinned, went under the mower. He watched the tractor and trailer slow to a halt and tried to stand up—and tumbled back down. Tried again. Fell down. Finally he looked: a growing puddle of blood where his left foot should’ve been.
Help. No one heard him. He yelled again. The owner of the field was in a nearby shed but a football game on the radio canceled out Dil’s screams. On his hands and knees, Dil crawled toward the nearest house. As the shock wore off and the reality of the severed foot set in, waves of pain rolled up his leg, wringing his cries with an extra twist of desperation. He wriggled 50 feet through the grass before a woman in a nearby home thought she heard an injured animal. She stepped outside to look. Dil Griffiths?
By the time Sue arrived the residents of River Road had crowded around her husband, covered him with a blanket, lit him a few cigarettes. She thought she was there to rescue Dil from another sting. When she first received the phone call—emergency, come quick—she grabbed his epinephrine from the house, thinking, “Stupid man, forgot to take this with him.”
But the first thing Dil Griffiths lost in 2007 wasn’t just his foot. It was most of the left leg. Life-flighted to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, he winced as the doctors told him that if he was to ever use a prosthesis they’d have to cut off everything below the knee.
It was the worst thing that ever happened to Dil, the event by which he would divide his life—before the accident and after the accident. That’s how he looked at it for the few months he spent tinkering around the farm on crutches. But something much worse than a mower blade would soon spin into the farmer’s life, a force much hungrier for devastation gathering thousands of miles away over the Pacific. Soon Dil, his wife, their neighbors, all of western Lewis County, and beyond would learn a new definition of loss.
Eyeing the forecaster workstations in his Sand Point Way office in Seattle, Ted Buehner knew he could be witnessing one of the biggest weather events of his career. He’d watched the tropical storm fill his screens since Tuesday, November 27, tracking its ominous slide across the ocean. An amalgam of a generic midlatitude weather system and two former typhoons, the storm engorged itself on subtropical air, building wind speed (up to 147 miles per hour) and metastasizing to a diameter of several thousand miles, ultimately growing to a size—as one Oregon meteorologist would later note—“comparable to the diameter of the moon.” It was enough to pull the National Weather Service meteorologist into work today, a Saturday, December 1. Now near landfall, the storm was showing more unsettling characteristics. The typical Pineapple Express storm (a system that migrates from the western Pacific to the West Coast) tends to hit the Cascades perpendicularly. This one was running parallel to the mountain range, suggesting the more severe weather would stay in the lowlands instead of breaking in the mountains.
Hurricane-grade winds, snow turning to rain, and a chance for severe flooding, this one had all the hallmarks of a catastrophe, just the thing the NWS pays Buehner to warn the public about—just the kind of thing that lured Buehner into cloud-watching in the first place. It was the notorious Columbus Day Storm, which blasted the Northwest in October 1962, killing 46 people and destroying $235 million worth of property, that stirred the imagination of a six-year-old Buehner and convinced him to spend his life divining dangerous weather, forgoing his other passion, baseball umpiring. As NWS’s warning coordination meteorologist, Buehner’s job is to protect 4.5 million people in 14 Western Washington counties from the forces of nature.
By Saturday afternoon he and his team had already cycled through the series of increasingly dire missives they release to the media and emergency management community—“outlook,” “watch,” “advisory,” “warning”—but Buehner still felt apprehensive because “there’s a tendency for people to not pay close attention to the weather during weekends.” And as snow began to dust the Seattle area, he grew more alarmed. “The Seattle media was concerned about the snow,” Buehner would later recall, “and they played what is known in the outlying communities as Seattle-centric media.” As for the deluge that would sack western Lewis County, television and radio forecasts “did talk about it turning to rain and being windy on the coast, but they didn’t emphasize a whole lot about it.” The storm Buehner would later call the most destructive weather event in his 30 years at the National Weather Service was hours away from hammering down on Washington State. And the people with the most at stake, either due to lack of accurate information or a willful disregard for the dangers at hand, weren’t moving out of the way.
Look closely. See Dil on crutches swinging his one good leg across the yard? He’s slow, and every so often his face twitches in pain, and you might mistake this for one man’s personal hell. But stay awhile and look around and you’ll see: This is paradise, an Eden for one man and one woman—and eight llamas, two emus, eight dogs, five cats, a bearded dragon, and a parrot. The farm is one of a dozen homes on River Road, a loop off rural Highway 6, 13 miles west of the town of Chehalis. A weeping willow shades a little maroon one-and-a-half-story house with a tiny attic bedroom—an old logger’s home built in 1912. A garden bursts with carrots and green beans in spring and summer. A sign on a nearby fence, “Spit Happens,” celebrates the llamas tiptoeing alongside the emus. Dil often spoils the exotic pets with treats from a grove of apple, pear, and plum trees flanking a narrow hay field behind the house. A century ago the railroad ran right through the field; Dil’s not sure if he believes it, but local lore has it that the orchard exists because train passengers tossed off their fruit cores and pits. He can’t help but smile at his own miracle crop, the 800 bales of hay, ready to sell, stacked neatly in the shed—all harvested in the fall by the 57-year-old farmer operating the tractor with one leg.
Now follow him up the steps and into the house. There’s Sue, the reflection of a computer screen dancing on her glasses. She could be shopping for clocks and watches online. The Yorkshire, England, native loves clocks and watches. One of her most cherished possessions is a brass carriage clock her son from a previous marriage gave her for Mothers Day when he was 14. Timepieces everywhere. The house ticks and tocks in a hypnotic rhythm. A wood-burning stove chases out the draft as Dil ambles over to the couch to roll a cigarette. Sue marvels at how her husband adjusted to life after losing his leg. A few weeks after the accident something settled into Dil, something she’d never seen in their 25 years together. “Here’s a man who whines about the smallest cut, but with the leg, he never complained. He just accepted it.” In 1983, on a quiet Sunday at a club in Aberystwyth, Wales, a 33-year-old Dil, never married, approached a 39-year-old Sue, recently separated from her husband, and asked, “Want to play a game of pool?” “So I said sure,” Sue recalls, “and he beat me! And I said then that was not a gentlemanly thing.” “And I’ve suffered ever since,” Dil laughs.
See. Paradise. Take one last look, let the image burn into your mind. Tomorrow it may be gone, because, well, step back outside and look at the house again. Lower. See that? It’s on stilts. Three-foot-high stanchions lifting the old logger’s home above the soil, a glimpse at the forgotten history of the Chehalis River snaking past the llama keeper’s house.
In December 1887, under torrential rains, the river swelled and claimed the lives of two men. In the fall of 1896, the Cowlitz River, a tributary of the Chehalis, flooded an area 50 miles from the Griffithses’ farm, drowning a mother and her five children. The November 27, 1896, edition of the Chehalis Bee speaks of floodwaters so strong that a house “was carried half a mile away and the school house was turned completely around.” In 1915, three years after Dil and Sue’s home was built, the Skookumchuck, another Chehalis tributary, overflowed and sunk downtown Centralia in two feet of water; further south the Cowlitz washed away bridges and shut down sawmills.
Decade after decade, generations of Lewis County residents learned and then forgot the lessons of the Chehalis River, the age-old wisdom of river people the world over: Lives built next to rivers are lives that can vanish at any time. The name Chehalis itself is the Salish Indian word for “shifting sands.”
More recently, in 1996, a February storm filled the Chehalis to what was then its highest level in recorded history, more than 74 inches. Interstate 5, between the town of Chehalis and Centralia, was under more than six feet of water. A decade later, floodwaters from a November 6 storm killed two men.
Sunday night, December 2, 2007, Sue Griffiths went online not to look at clocks and watches but to check the weather report. She and Dil had had little to fear in their 20 years on River Road; the fields went soggy during the 1996 flood, sure, but the 2006 flood barely got their toes wet. She looked up from the computer screen and told Dil the news: There’s an imminent flood warning, but it’s expected to be no worse than 2006. Why worry? They went to bed to the sound of raindrops dappling the little home.
Take a paper clip, stretch it out into a straight piece of metal. Bend it from the middle, back and forth. Keep doing it. And doing it. What’s going to happen to the paper clip? That’s how meteorologist Ted Buehner would eventually explain the storm’s impact on Western Washington’s forests; an estimated 17,000 acres of trees snapped in the relentless Category 1 hurricane-force winds, while the soil, turned to mush, slid downhill. The storm caused over a thousand landslides in southwest Washington, 730 of them within the Upper Chehalis basin. A Seattle Times investigation would later find that 30 percent of those slides occurred on steep hillsides where the Weyerhaeuser logging company had clear-cut Douglas firs. As timber and sludge filled the rivers, the water, already high from incessant rain, rose to record levels. Meanwhile bridges became dams as thousands of logs jammed underneath, clogging the Chehalis River’s 115-mile journey to the Pacific.
A U.S. Geological Survey station at Doty, 5 miles west of River Road, recorded a rise in the Chehalis from 3 feet to 30 feet in 17 hours; the river’s force amplified from 500 cubic feet per second to a staggering 50,000—enough to unmoor a 37-ton concrete block at the USGS station and push it from one bank to the other.
Beyond River Road, the weather began racking up its death toll. Twenty miles west, in Winlock, an 80-year-old man stepped out of his basement-flooded house to check a drain along an overflowing creek bed and was never seen again. Farther still, in Aberdeen, wind fatally smashed a tree onto a man in his driveway. In Montesano, a man dependent on oxygen equipment suffocated when his home lost electricity. And the storm was just getting started.
Sue Griffiths awoke around seven on Monday morning and looked outside. “Oh my goodness, Dil, look, the water is up to the road.” Dil’s pickup truck sat in the hay field next to the river. He grabbed his crutches and swung himself to the truck, already mired in at least a foot of water. He fired up the engine, but the wheels were stuck. He splashed over to his backhoe, which he chained to the truck bumper to jerk it free. The pickup wouldn’t budge. The water now up to his knees, he turned his attention to the animals. He couldn’t find the emus, but the llamas stared at him blankly, wading in the rising brown soup. Dil climbed back on the backhoe and charged the animals to scare them to higher ground. No luck. The Chehalis was reclaiming its ancient floodplain at a rate of about a foot an hour. He left the backhoe bogged next to the animals and sloshed his way back to the house, where the couch was already sunk up to its armrests. Sue’s clocks ticked away precious minutes. The couple and their pets climbed upstairs to the attic bedroom. Out the window Dil watched the river swallow his farm. His 800 bails of hay broke apart like Shredded Wheat in chocolate milk. As the river rushed by, the top floor of the home felt like a houseboat floating inexplicably upstream—a houseboat holding a man and woman, eight yapping lapdogs, five cats, a lizard, and a talking bird. Dil’s Ark.
Outside, the Chehalis raged, slapping timber and other debris against buildings. Through the shrieking wind they heard the snarl of an engine and couldn’t believe their ears. Then they couldn’t believe their eyes. A man on a jet ski skipped across the brown surf—dodging logs, eyes squinting with laser focus—then disappeared around the bend. Minutes later they spotted him again, this time with two children in tow, survivors he rescued from a house that would’ve been an underwater tomb.
Dil and Sue watched their neighbors, who’d climbed atop their mobile home, grip the roof awning as the home began to move with the current. The structure traced a wide arc, floating out toward the center of the river, and finally slammed into a row of firm fence posts at the edge of Dil’s hay field. Sue’s concern for her neighbors was quickly overshadowed. “Will our house hold, Dil?” “Oh, yes of course!” Dil insisted. He was lying. He had no idea whether or not the old home would stay put.
Huddled under old blankets for warmth, they waited in the attic bedroom all morning and throughout the afternoon for the flood to subside or for help to arrive. The power had long gone out, and the cellphones weren’t working. Sue kept poking her head out the window to check on the neighbors, until around 3pm, when they heard the telltale beat of rotors chopping the sky.
A Coast Guard helicopter soared over River Road and circled the Griffithses’ house, but Dil waved the crew over to his neighbors marooned atop the mobile home. Rescuers spidered down and plucked several more families off rooftops down the street before finally hovering above Dil and Sue. The helicopter’s blast peeled off roof tiles as the couple wriggled from the attic window. Sue stiffened with fear as a rescuer put her in a harness and clipped it to his own. He described the plan in even tones: “Don’t look down, just look into my face. And before you know it we’ll be there.” The terror drained out of her and soon she was in the helicopter. Dil grabbed the three dogs he could catch—the other five, frightened by the helicopter, wouldn’t come out from under the bed—put them in a carrier, and he was lifted up. As the helicopter buzzed the valley one last time, Dil and Sue drank in the scene below. Their farm, their house, everything they had worked for over 20 years was under at least eight feet of water. They owned the clothes on their backs and three shivering canines in a crate. That’s all. Dil spotted two horses cornered on one of the only high spots left on the valley floor, refugees from a fellow farmer’s pasture, the last creatures standing in a ruined landscape. The horses reared their heads as the aircraft droned past.
The Griffithses’ escape was part of what Governor Chris Gregoire would later describe as the state’s “largest aerial search-and-rescue effort since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.” The Coast Guard, Navy, and National Guard aided more than 300 people, 135 of them, like Dil and Sue, hoisted off roofs. Meanwhile, in the towns of Chehalis and Centralia, flood-waters poured into the city streets, forcing many residents to escape by boat. In Centralia the river peaked at 74.78 feet, beating the all-time record in 1996 by nearly six inches. Officials shut down a 20-mile stretch of I-5; by Tuesday the interstate sat under 10 feet of water and would remain closed until Thursday. Makeshift shelters, including schools and churches, hosted newly homeless residents from all over Lewis County.
The governor declared a state of emergency. President Bush guaranteed federal aid five days later. Gregoire, aloft in a helicopter with other state officials, surveyed the destruction. “You couldn’t see buildings. All you could see was the tops of roofs,” she said. “And then you sat there in your head and said, Underneath that roof is a home.”
Down on the ground, residents began to count their losses. The storm killed a total of eight Washingtonians between December 2 and December 4. Another death shocked Centralia on December 11, when a 77-year-old man, overwhelmed by the flood and the devastation it unleashed, shot himself. The tally on damage to businesses, houses, and farms climbed to more than $57 million. In the surrounding farmlands, ranchers buried, and in some cases burned, their drowned livestock—hundreds of cows, sheep, and goats—and swapped stories about listening to the cattle bellow through the night until the black murk strangled their moans.
Mud everywhere. Every surface lacquered brown. Strips of highway lifted by the water and left intact in fields. The entire landscape a dingy, ghostly simulacrum of itself. Driving out to see his farm for the first time since the flood, Dil Griffiths felt like he was in a war zone. Sides of mountains blown out, the result of landslides. Piles of debris and farm equipment tossed about. A bridge on River Road had been knocked out after a logjam broke free. His house was caked in mud and rotting, the roof tiles torn off from the wind and the rescue helicopter. Miraculously, the dogs, cats, bird, and lizard had survived in the attic bedroom. (“We were sure cats would eat the bird,” Sue later admitted.) But that was it. Everything else was gone. On crutches, hobbling around his decimated 10 acres, Dil felt defeated. “Push it all in the river,” he said to no one in particular. “If the river wants it, it can have it.”
But slowly, and as subtly as the wind shifts in their river valley, Dil and Sue’s fate changed course. There had been a waft of it that first night, after the helicopter rescue. At a shelter in Chehalis, a recent widow with extra room at home was leaving with a family she had offered to put up for the night. In the breezeway she noticed Dil shivering on crutches. “Would you like to come with us, too?” she asked. Dil and Sue lived with the woman for three days and by the end of their stay she sold them her car for $500, well below its value. They stayed with one set of friends for 10 days, and another for two and half months, a bleak winter during which Dil had little to do but visit his ruined farm and stare. And then: “A guy I work for over in the Boistford Valley called me up one night and says, ‘There’s a mobile that’s available, the guy’s going to donate it, come over and have a look at it.’ We went over in the car and had a look. The owner was there and said it’s got to be donated, it’s got to be moved. He said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, it’s yours.’”
The home was trucked to Dil and Sue’s farm and parked right next to the soon-to-be-bulldozed old house. Then more help. At the hardware store a man approached Dil and asked, “Where’s your leg?” He handed Dil a business card. He was a local prosthetist. His office gave Dil an artificial leg. And the help kept coming. Six months after moving into the mobile home, Sue got a call from Debbie Campbell, the local executive director of United Way, who said she wanted to just swing by to see how the couple was faring six months after receiving their home. Sue said sure, come over, and was surprised when Campbell arrived with picnic tables, chairs, sandwiches, champagne, and a celebration’s worth of people. Sue thought, Wow, are all these people here because we got the house six months ago? And then they heard a loud engine noise, and a truck materialized pulling a brand new Kubota tractor for Dil. Friends and neighbors had pooled donations.
The weeks and months after the flood were like this. All over Lewis County, volunteers helped clean up mud, tear down rotting houses, and build new ones from scratch. Federal aid came in the form of FEMA checks. And as life slowly returned to normal, the residents started to ask questions.
Visit towns like Centralia, Chehalis, and Doty, communities that, a year later, still bear the high-water mark of disaster—“Every time it rains there’s this heavy cloud over the whole community,” confessed United Way’s Debbie Campbell, explaining a sort of collective postflood stress syndrome—and you’ll hear little talk about one of the calamity’s main culprits, the clear-cut hillsides that dumped tons of sludge into rivers and have forced the Weyerhaeuser logging company into playing public relations defense (in the form of a 19-page report emphasizing the enormity of the storm). What you’ll hear instead is talk of a population taken by surprise.
“There just wasn’t enough warning,” said 73-year-old Centralia resident Patricia Mollerstuen, who with her husband Gerald has lived in the same Main Street house since 1970 and has weathered three major floods, including the then-record shattering 1996 flood. The December 2007 flood was like nothing they’d experienced before. It came in a flash, too quickly to salvage much of anything, destroying furniture and family heirlooms. “This time it happened fast.”
Meteorologist Ted Buehner has heard the stories: the complete obliteration of property; the deaths; the residents who insist that the worst natural disaster in a generation snuck up on them. In the year since the storm, Buehner has sat in high school auditoriums with farmers and families still stunned by their losses, looking to him for an explanation. Eyeing this side of the storm, not its spasms on a radar screen, but its casualties—proud men and women gouged of everything but fear and doubt and anger—all he could do was point to the series of alerts his office had issued leading up to the storm. There’s little satisfaction in that for a guy who’s wanted to save people from dangerous weather since he was six years old. “People didn’t have their eye on the ball,” Buehner, ever the umpire, would later say. “If we had to do it all over again I think we probably would have been banging on the door to get the community’s attention more than we did at that time.” He’s now looking into systems that are less reliant on the media’s dissemination of warnings, including supplying locals with their own rain gauges.
But what about the decades of flooding in the area, the history revealed by the stilts that had raised Dil and Sue’s old home off the ground? In the words of UW geomorphologist (and 2008 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient) David Montgomery, “The air above a floodplain’s ground, that’s storage area for flood-water.” You can fill that space with a house, you can fill that space with a strip mall, but when the river overflows, that space is filled with water. Given the risk, why stick around? It’s a question that only those outside the community seem to be asking. The people of western Lewis County not only stay put, flood after flood, but seem to do so stubbornly, as if the mud and water erases all that instructive history along with lives and property.
Come, look again. Peel off Interstate 5 and onto Highway 6. Steer past all the half-finished new homes. Drive until you think there’s no more to see, then keep driving. Across a little bridge at River Road and beyond mounds of bleached timber that look like piles of bones, you’ll see, spelled out on a sign, exactly how people in this part of the world explain their decisions to stay. “Spit Happens.” The llamas are gone. One emu survived but was adopted by a family in Olympia. In late September, 13 months after he lost his leg, and nearly a year since the flood took everything he owned, Dil Griffiths, no longer on crutches, limps around his farm. He’s getting used to his prosthetic leg but still experiences phantom pain. The shed that once held hundreds of bales of hay now stores unsorted junk, crushed chests of drawers, tires, the detritus of Dil and Sue’s former life. Only inside the new mobile home has life returned to normal. A single clock keeps rhythm and Sue reigns over a tribe of dogs, cats, a lizard, and a parrot that’s picked up a new habit since the storm: mimicking the dogs’ desperate barking.
Out in one of the hay fields, where the rotary mower that took his leg still sits, the farmer bends down and picks up a handful of dirt. It’s not the fecund soil that once nurtured his crops, but loose loam, river sand in which nothing grows. A wasteland. But the farmer has something else to show you. Dil Griffiths, who once crawled 50 feet through the weeds because no one could hear his cry for help and was finally answered with more love and kindness than maybe one man deserves in a lifetime—he wants you to follow him to his other field, the narrow one flanked by that puzzling little orchard. Remember the legend? The whisper of history? The fruit seeds tossed aside by train passengers as they wound through the valley a century ago? The fruit trees are still here, poking up through the sand. And because the past is more than floods, more than houses on stilts, because some things survive and stay with the land and with the people who love it most, and because, well, because it’s Dil’s turn to give, he pulls down a plum, polishes it in his callused palms, and hands you a purple gem.