A storm front coupled with high winter tides and heavy rains left Birch Bay Drive anything but high and dry on the morning of Monday, December 17, as water inundated the community and left businesses and homes flooded.
Whatcom County Public Works employee Wendy Davis said that when she arrived onsite at Birch Bay Drive at 7:30 a.m. the storm surge had already begun. “It was bad then,” she said. “There was water blowing everywhere.” By the time high tide peaked at 8:55 a.m., with strong winds backing it, water had breached its shores and flowed in to the roadways.
The wind-propelled waves pulled away the log barriers that line Birch Bay Drive, replacing them with shells, rocks and other
debris. Davis said that as quickly as the public works crew could clear the road, it was just as quickly covered again. “We pushed debris off the road, but the waves would bring it right back. At one point, there was water all the way across the road.”
Witnesses said that during the tidal surge one of the logs that had been reclaimed by the sea battered itself against the windows of the oceanfront Via Birch Bay Cafe & Bistro. The log broke through the windows and then the wind and waves exacerbated the damage as the morning wore on.
Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputies, who requested anonymity, said as the tide rolled in, you could see the furniture floating through the restaurant. Fire chief Henry Hollander offered confirmation. “You could see it washing all the wine bottles out into the road,” he said.
A combination of astronomical events, the winter solstice and a severe low pressure system that crossed directly over the Puget Sound created the perfect storm (so to speak) for the unusually high tides to cause coastal flooding, National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) spokesman Stephen Gill said.
Even well past high tide, as the waters slowly receded, waves continued to break methodically against the now glassless windows of Via Birch Bay, sending spray as high as the rooftop.
Work from local artists hung crooked on the walls or floated out in the bay, and chairs and tables had been pushed haphazardly to the roadside entrance of the restaurant by the waves. Contractors who had been working on the restaurant’s renovations in past weeks were able to rescue their tools and the owner’s guitar before the mounting sea water claimed everything inside the restaurant.
As the water receded, owner Jefferson Oh braved the calf-deep tide inside his restaurant to survey the damage. He climbed over tables and chairs, and made phone calls while waves crashed against the walls of the gutted establishment. “Everything is gone,” he said with disbelief. “There’s nothing left.”
His brother and partner in the business Yoon Oh had to get past police barricades to get to the scene. “We have insurance, but we didn’t expect this. Not like this,” he said.
Jefferson Oh said they will regroup, file insurance and try and reopen to get it going again. Via Birch Bay opened its doors in August of this year. “This stuff happens,” Jefferson said with a shrug.
“It’s just devastating,” resident Nancy Price said, as she and her daughter, an employee at the cafe, stared at the debris. “It’s going to take months to clean this up.”
Via Café business manager Gary Gibbons was optimistic about repairs at a Birch Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting the next day, December 18. He announced that a December 31 reopening is possible if the county allows them to go ahead with repairs.
“We have people on hand, and it’s mostly a matter of replacing the floors, the windows and parts of the electrical system,” Gibbons said. “If we don’t run into too much bureaucracy, it’ll go fairly quickly.” Gibbons added that he was amazed to see such a helpful response from the fire department, sheriff’s office, community members and café employees, many of whom got involved in the clean-up process.
While Via Birch Bay seemed to receive the brunt of the tidal damage, they certainly weren’t the only ones who took a hit.
Hollander estimated that more than 30 structures, both commercial and residential, had been damaged by the storm surge. “What was driving the water this morning was the wind,” he said. “That tide was not unusually high. It was high, but it was the wind that did it.”
The North Whatcom Fire and Rescue Department had opened an emergency shelter at the Birch Bay fire station for people affected by the floodwaters.
Just down the way on Alderson Road, swelling creeks from the high tide turned the front lawn of Birch Bay Thrift & Consignment into an almost knee-deep pond and flooded the lower part of the store. Nearly a foot and half of standing water threatened the shop’s wares.
Owner Susan Fisher donned garbage bags as waders so that she could cross the water and take in the damage. “It wasn’t like this when I got here this morning,” she said. “I parked my car and walked down to take a look at the shore, and when I came back, my car was just about flooded. It was within half an hour.”
Fisher quickly moved her car, and then, with the help of neighbors, they began to rescue what they could.
“It’s the entire family from Dee’s Country Diner here helping,” Fisher said. “They were here to clean out their restaurant [because they closed yesterday], and saw that I needed help.”
The volunteers used pillows and plywood to create makeshift barriers to hold the water back, and collected as much of the merchandise as they could.
Fisher was clearly overwhelmed by the condition of her store and had to excuse herself to take a moment and regroup. Outside the store, she was able to find optimism again as she looked over what she jokingly called her “new lakefront property.”
“There will be some stuff I’m sure I’ll have to pay for, but it is what it is,” she said. Most of her consignment wares appeared to be out of harm’s way, since it was on the upper level of the store. “We’ll start over,” Fisher said. “Everything is going to be fine. I just want the water to go away.”