When heavy rains hit southwestern Washington earlier this month, Chehalis-Centralia Airport (CLS) was a staging area for rescue operations.
But on Dec. 3, when the Chehalis River, which runs beside the airport, rose 24 inches in just one hour, CLS was swamped. State officials say a dike that was supposed to protect the airport was topped by the fast-moving, cold water.
Among the items overtaken by the flood waters were the cars of people who had come to the airport as helicopter rescue teams.
Officials noted that airborne rescue efforts at night were extremely dangerous because the flood knocked out electricity, which meant the red lights that warn pilots about aerial obstructions and high-tension lines were dark.
Most of the airport was submerged. The exception was a small patch of ramp that became an emergency parking spot. A photograph that appeared in a local newspaper showed a gaggle of airplanes, ranging from light twins to homebuilt designs, carefully arranged nose to tail to maximize space on the high ground.
It took a week to remove mud and debris from the ramps and hangars so that the airport could be re-opened.
“There is damage to the ramp, the fencing, the AWOS, the FBOs, the restrooms and some of the runway lighting components,” reported Nisha Marvel, public information officer for the Washington State Department of Transportation. “It is pretty bad.”
Once the damage is assessed, airport officials will be able to apply for grants to help pay for the repairs, she noted.
Approximately 78 aircraft are base at the airport, which sports a 5,000-foot runway.
The airport was not the only casualty of the flooding, as destruction ranged far and wide in the community. More than 70 people had to be rescued from flooded homes. Many were airlifted by helicopter. As this issue was going to press, the death toll from the flood stood at six people and hundreds of animals, as the primary industry in the area is farming. In addition, entire neighborhoods and businesses were lost.
State officials estimate the damage total could be in the billions of dollars.