As heavy rain combined with snowmelt on Thursday, Feb. 6, area waterways swelled and rose rapidly. The National Weather Service in Pendleton issued a flood warning for Umatilla, Walla Walla and Columbia counties that morning. By the afternoon, with the rainfall continuing beyond what had been predicted, Mill Creek east of Walla Walla neared its highest historic crest.
First thing Friday morning, with the creek flooding above and below town and close to overflowing its channel within city limits, the city of Walla Walla convened an incident command post. Representatives from the Public Works, Parks, Fire and Development Services departments gathered at the Service Center off East Moore Street and began to coordinate the city’s response to the potential threat. City officials also met with Walla Walla County Emergency Management and other local agencies to discuss the situation.
Eleven teams consisting of employees from three city departments were formed, and went out to assess and report on the condition of the bridges and levees in the city. Personnel from the Water Division were dispatched to assist the county with closing the bridges at Wallula and Last Chance roads.
At the ICP, department leaders exchanged information with the county’s Emergency Operations Center and took calls from the inspection teams reporting what they were seeing on the ground. The Public Works administrative coordinator entered their reports into a spreadsheet to track the progress of the situation.
At 10 a.m., the city’s communications manager arrived and was briefed on the teams’ activities up to that point. He drafted an initial news release to update the public about road and bridge closures and the city’s response, and sent the information to the media, put it on the city website, sent it as an e-notification to subscribers of city news and posted it on the city’s social media channels. He continued to post updates as additional details came into the ICP.
Personnel from the Finance and Human Resources departments joined the ICP, and shortly after 11 a.m., the team received a briefing by phone from the National Weather Service. NWS reported no further persistent rain was expected, and the water level in Mill Creek had begun to slowly decline. With the potential crisis avoided, the ICP disbanded around noon.
But that wasn’t the end of the city’s response. The 11 teams stayed at their posts at the bridges and levees until around 3 p.m., reporting their observations to Public Works. City workers continued to assist the county efforts, and the communications manager continued to distribute information to the public throughout the rest of the day.
On Saturday morning, three teams assembled to inspect the bridges and levees, as well as the city’s Water Intake Facility in the Mill Creek headwaters and transmission line between there and the Water Treatment Plant. Throughout the day, the communications manager kept the public updated via the city website, email and social media.
On Sunday, another team looked at the bridges and levees again. Within two more days, all the closed bridges were inspected by city engineers and personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and then reopened.
The Public Works Department’s efforts currently revolve around coordinating with other agencies to restore the water transmission line. This work is expected to continue for at least a few more months. In the meantime, the city’s water is being supplied by our array of deep-basalt wells.
We were ready
Why were city personnel able to respond to the situation quickly and efficiently? Forethought and training. Walla Walla’s leaders think about situations like flooding and viral outbreaks such as COVID-19, plan the city’s response ahead of time, and practice what they will do in times of crisis.
The city’s leadership team (the department heads, assistant city attorney and communications manager), along with their seconds and the mayor, train at least four times a year as an incident management team. The purpose of these sessions is to practice emergency response using the city’s Continuity of Operations Plan, its guide for operating in crisis situations such as viral pandemic, earthquake, wildfire, terrorism and flooding. Public Works, Fire/Ambulance, Police and communications personnel also attend discussions and exercises at the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office to coordinate responses to flood events.
The COOP, which is updated regularly, defines the city’s mission-essential functions and specifies roles for the IMT members, from commander and safety officer to public information officer and recovery branch director. Each person has duties to carry out in an emergency situation, and the team’s regular training sessions help them learn to perform their roles innately.
In fact, the IMT’s most recent exercise involved almost the exact situation we faced in February: a Mill Creek flood scenario. In this training, we discussed our response if the Bennington Lake dam were to fail. Thankfully, this did not occur in February. However, the actions and responsibilities we rehearsed were virtually identical to what the personnel in our incident command post were called on to do. We were ready.
How to stay informed
Walla Walla-area residents also have roles to play in emergency situations. The most important things you can do are be prepared and stay informed of what’s happening, so you can react if necessary. As was the case in February, local agencies will put out vital information as it is available. But if you can’t access that info, it won’t do you any good.
Here are some steps you can take now so you can stay informed during the next emergency:
Sign up to receive messages via Walla Walla County’s Citizen Alert system by visiting
- bit.ly/wwcountyalerts and providing your contact information. Alerts will be sent via whatever methods you select — cellphone, land line, email, text messages, pager and more — ensuring you will receive essential information when you need it. In emergencies, the county’s Emergency Management Department and Department of Community Health also post important updates on their Facebook pages — @WallaWallaEM and @WWCDCG, respectively.
- Register to receive city notifications by email by visiting wallawallawa.gov/getnews
and signing up for “News.” You can also see these notifications by visiting the city web page (
- wallawallawa.gov) and scrolling down to the tab labeled “SPOTLIGHT.”
- Follow the city’s social media accounts: Facebook (@CityofWallaWalla); Twitter (@CityofWW); and Nextdoor (which you should automatically see if you’re registered with an address within Walla Walla city limits).
In an emergency situation, you may also tune in to 1320 or 1420 AM on your radio to receive information and status reports, as well as KEPR and KNDU on your television.
When the next crisis arises, you can be assured city of Walla Walla leaders are trained and ready to respond, as we did in February. And if you take a few moments to sign up for emergency alerts from the city and county, you’ll be better prepared as well.