Northwest Flooding Is a Reminder of the Power of Tribal Communities

flooded walking pathRecently, coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia experienced three of the so-called “atmospheric rivers,” which dump significant amounts of precipitation in a short amount of time. According to NOAA, a strong atmospheric river can transport the amount of water equivalent to 7.5-15 times the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River and constitute 30-50% of the annual precipitation on the West Coast. While atmospheric rivers are not a new phenomenon, evidence suggests that climate change is making them longer, wider, and more frequent.[1] This is due to an increase in global temperatures, which leads to more evaporation of surface waters, filling these already laden atmospheric rivers with even more water.

In the case of northwestern Washington and southern British Columbia, the recent atmospheric rivers led to catastrophic flooding. Beginning on November 1 of last year, parts of the region received 15-20 inches of rain, including the Lummi Nation, home of the Lhaq’temish and site of the main campus of Northwest Indian College (NWIC). The persistence of rain flooded soaked soils, bringing mudslides down onto the interstate and filling hundreds of homes with water. Further north, the towns of Sumas and Abbotsford were almost completely flooded, as both towns sit on a flood plain, formerly Sumas Lake, that was drained in the 1920s for farmland. A whole system of levees, dikes, flood gates, dams, and pumps failed in multiple areas due to the force of the water. The City of Bellingham discharged over 9 million gallons of sewage into Bellingham Bay in order to protect the drinking water supply. The Nooksack River, which drains the surrounding 203,524-square-kilometer watershed from the North Cascades into Bellingham Bay, flooded in multiple areas, leading to evacuations and, at points, shutting down some or all the roads leading in or out of Lummi. During this flooding, I (and everyone else on Lummi) was stranded for days, as even the primary evacuation route was covered in water. Road closures continued, as more rain fell on overly soaked soils while damaged levees and roads compounded the issues.

During that time, I had an important and difficult-to-schedule appointment in Seattle with a maternal fetal medicine doctor at the University of Washington Medical Center. Time is of the essence with some of my pregnancy-related care, and I wasn’t able to reschedule to a better time. I worried whether, in a brief pause in the rain between November 17 and 18, I would be able to leave the reservation safely. On the morning of November 18, I ventured at first light to see if the highest of the roads was yet passable in my low-riding Subaru Impreza. Much to my relief, I was allowed passage through foot-deep water in a long line of tall trucks, overseen by tribal administration. I was terrified. The only thing which made this possible (and safe enough to risk), was the fact that the Lummi tribal team was on site. I kept thinking that even if my car were to flood, the tribe was there, and I would be okay.

car driving through flooded roadwayThankfully, I made it to the other side, and was able to keep my important medical appointments in Seattle. Afterwards, I travelled back home to Astoria, Oregon, to spend some time with my husband. I waited for the flood waters to recede enough to return to Lummi to finish out the fall term before our holiday break. While one of the roads remained mostly open, we decided it was more prudent for me to stay where I could access an emergency room quickly, given my high-risk pregnancy status. I was relieved and grateful that my campus housing stayed dry. I was humbled by the experience and how it reminded us about water and its profound power to overcome even the best-made structures. It is difficult to consider how climate change will continue to impact our communities, and what we can possibly do in the face of “disasters” becoming more commonplace.

It is in that vein that I am truly struck by the efforts of the Lummi Nation to provide critical services and communication to their people during this time. Even as the waters were rising, health clinic employees boated into Lummi to ensure people had medications and access to care. Several locally based NWIC instructors and fellow students reached out to me to make sure I was okay. Food distribution and COVID testing and vaccinations continued, even while doing so posed a risk to the people doing the work. Emergency shelters and other resources were made available quickly to those who needed them. Through it all, the Lummi persisted in their commitment to care for one another, with frequent reminders on social media that “we’re all in this together.” While the negative impacts of the flooding on me were minor, the gratitude I experienced for being part of a community making these efforts was profound. No tribal government or community is without our problems, and it is easy to criticize one another when we are stressed. But how we show up in an emergency reveals our deeper capacities and commitments. For this reason, I lift my hands and say hy’shqe to the Lummi people and Northwest Indian College for their care and work to keep me and others safe.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

[1] Espinoza, V., Waliser, D.E., Guan, B., Lavers, D.A., Ralph, F.M. (2018x, April 19). Global Analysis of Climate Change Projection Effects on Atmospheric Rivers. Geophysical Research Letters. Retrieved at

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