SEATTLE — Reasmey Choun, 27, and her family visited their apartment in South Park, the basement unit of a duplex that they escaped from through a window during the flood a few days before. They were there Friday morning to see if they could move back in temporarily while they look for a permanent home.
“It stinks in here,” Choun’s 13-year-old niece cried immediately upon entering.
The room was filled with a pungent smell wafting up from the wood underneath the vinyl flooring, wet and moldy, said Choun’s 55-year-old mother, Saveoun Keo. The still-damp couch cushions were strewn around the living room in an attempt to dry them out. The refrigerator, stove and $1,000 karaoke machine that Keo and neighbors used to sing Khmer songs were broken.
It didn’t take long for Keo to determine she couldn’t stay there. She has asthma, and the mold made her run out of breath while moving a bag of water-damaged clothes from one end of the room to the other.
But the family has few other options.
Since the waters overwhelmed the banks of the Duwamish River on Tuesday, Keo and her family have been living in a hotel paid for by the city of Seattle. But the city originally said it would stop footing the bill on Wednesday.
Choun has called friends, family and a homeless shelter to find a place to stay. But they have all told her they can’t accommodate her entire family — her mother, 9-year-old daughter, a niece she considers a daughter, a dog and a cat.
“We all just want to stay as one right now,” Choun said. “We need each other.”
Searching for help
A king tide and stormy weather created the natural disaster that has knocked Choun’s family onto the brink of homelessness. This is a phenomenon that will likely grow more common in the Puget Sound region with the expected effects of climate change. Scientists anticipate global temperatures will tick upward, sea levels will rise and severe weather events will become more common. Choun’s family is also indicative of who will bear the burden of these events: people of color living paycheck to paycheck in low-income neighborhoods.
Seattle Public Utilities, the city’s first responders for urban flooding, estimates Tuesday’s flood damaged 25 homes and a handful of businesses.
The city’s Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross are working with the people staying in hotels to determine whether they have families they can stay with or if they need help finding an apartment.
As the Wednesday deadline approaches, mayor’s office spokesperson Jamie Housen said in a statement that the city would “assist those families with securing a housing solution” if they have nowhere to go.
American Red Cross spokesperson Betsy Robertson said people whose homes were damaged by the flood can get financial support from the agency. Staff will be going around the neighborhood to assess the damage and determine how much families will receive by the end of this week.
The city is also seeking state and federal disaster funds, but officials say that is far from guaranteed.
“So many people think that a disaster happens and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] comes in and gives money. Very rarely is it that easy,” said Kate Hutton, spokesperson for Seattle’s Office of Emergency Management.
Choun said she’s hoping to quickly move her family into a new apartment. She set up a GoFundMe to help pay for it.
Organizations like the Duwamish River Community Coalition and the Khmer Community of Seattle King County have been in South Park all week as well, providing translation, advocacy, food and supplies to the residents affected by flooding.
A contaminated, redlined community
The recent flood only adds to a litany of environmental and health challenges South Park residents face.
Cars spew exhaust as they drive down a highway that splits the neighborhood while roaring planes fly low overhead to and from Sea-Tac Airport. Toxic chemicals from over a century of industrial use contaminate a 5-mile stretch of the Duwamish River that runs through there, which has been designated as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. And the state Department of Ecology has identified part of the area that saw flooding as an “independent metals site,” where the soil is full of carcinogens like PCBs and metals like arsenic and lead.
A study funded by the EPA found in 2013 that residents of the Duwamish Valley are sicker and die younger than those living in other parts of the city. Residents of South Park and Georgetown in particular live eight years fewer on average than the rest of Seattle and King County, most likely due to pollution, lack of green space and other environmental stressors, the report found.
Some residents fear floods will worsen their health.
“Contaminated in the industrial area. Contaminated in the river. And now all combined,” said Mónica Pérez, a South Park resident and director of community initiatives at the local food bank, Cultivate South Park.
She waded through water several inches deep at the food bank on Thursday, as she moved boxes of food to the nearby office headquarters to keep them dry.
Places like South Park that were historically redlined and yellowlined — deemed “hazardous” or “definitely declining” by the federally sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s for a number of factors, such as the racial makeup of the neighborhood — have a higher risk of flooding, a 2021 Redfin analysis found. Often these marginalized communities struggle to secure funding for flood mitigation projects.
That research held true for Seattle, where about 6% of homes in formerly redlined and yellowlined areas face a high flood risk today, compared to about 3% of homes in neighborhoods deemed desirable.
Many of those neighborhoods are still home to a higher percentage of low-income families and people of color. But communities of color are less likely to receive disaster relief, according to FEMA’s 2020 National Advisory Council report. Low-income households are less likely to have flood insurance than affluent households, or have the savings and wealth to financially recover after a natural disaster.
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell visited South Park on Wednesday to see the impacts of the flooding, talk with neighbors and small businesses, and thank the volunteers and organizations supporting the affected residents. In a statement, his office wrote that the mayor recognizes the neighborhood “faces a disproportionate impact from the effects of pollution, climate change, and severe weather.”
“We know climate change will only make severe weather events more common and more intense, and our strategies and investments will continue to reflect the need to urgently build climate resilience and support frontline communities,” Harrell said in a written statement.
Seattle Public Utilities is improving drainage and building a pump station in South Park that will suck water from streets faster during high tide events.
Those improvements would reduce the duration of flooding but not prevent water from getting into people’s homes, said Keri Burchard-Juarez, a deputy director at Seattle Public Utilities.
The Duwamish River flowed over banks and into South Park on Tuesday due to a combination of a king tide, an especially high tide, and a low-pressure storm system, which both reduced the weight of the air above the river and poured additional water into it.
The flooding was not necessarily the result of climate change, but National Weather Service hydrologist Brent Bower said more events like this will happen. And with sea levels expected to rise along with global temperatures, he said a similar flood could have more disastrous consequences in the future.
Residents of South Park, many of whom speak English as a second language and are low income, say the effects of flooding are already difficult to bear.
Alfredo Alvarez, a mechanic, has been living in the same house in South Park for the past 15 years along with seven family members. He said this is the fourth time their home has flooded.
Alvarez said he spent three hours using a bucket to empty the water from his room and kitchen. The water destroyed his stove, couch, clothes and the work boots he bought for $100. He estimates the recent flood destroyed several thousand dollars’ worth of belongings.
Like many residents in South Park, he can’t afford flood insurance, which can cost upward of $1,000 per year, according to online quotes.
Seattle Public Utilities’ Burchard-Juarez said the long-term solution to prevent flooding in South Park is to build a berm or barrier along the Duwamish River. A project like that falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The city of Seattle requested that the Corps take on such a project in 2017. However, the project has not been selected due to a “limited amount of funding” for flood control projects nationwide, according to Andrew Munoz, the Seattle district spokesperson for the Corps.
On Friday morning, Choun and her family were in their basement apartment in South Park, waiting for staff from the city and American Red Cross to inspect their home.
At 10:40 a.m., Choun’s neighbor upstairs, who she calls her aunt, ran into their living room in a panic. There was a fire, she said.
They ran outside to see gray smoke pouring out of the unit above. Within a few minutes, 10 trucks from the Seattle Fire Department arrived to put out the fire. A department spokesperson later said it was likely caused by an electrical issue.
Choun said the lights have been flickering on and off in the building since the flood. Electrical problems are common in South Park homes, according to residents.
The fire, she said, was yet another indicator of how flooding has ravaged the neighborhood.