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Still getting hands dirty two months after flood

With mud caking tiny Curtis, Wash., far-flung friends roll up their sleeves to help its 349 residents dig out.

February 18, 2008|Stuart Glascock | Times Staff Writer

CURTIS, WASH. — Before floodwaters sent mud, timber and debris roaring through it, Boistfort Valley Farm was a model of modern food production based on old-time values: community involvement and organic growing methods.

The family farm supplied veggies, fruits, herbs and flowers for farmers' markets in Seattle, Olympia and Chehalis, Wash. Some 250 families participated in its community-supported agriculture program, in which they buy a share from the farm in exchange for part of its bounty -- a weekly box of fresh produce, usually delivered from spring until fall. The last box included celery, Brussels sprouts, pie pumpkins, kale, sage and rosemary, and went out in November.

Then, in December, nature came crashing down around Mike and Heidi Peroni, their 47-acre farm and the rest of Lewis County, in southwestern Washington.

A storm packing hurricane-force winds dumped nearly a foot of rain in places, and the Chehalis River swelled over its banks. A 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 was flooded, with water as deep as 10 feet. Hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed; more than 1,000 farm animals died.

Residents were sent scrambling for their lives.

The volume of water and the speed at which it rose was "absolutely surreal," said Mike Peroni. "When the water came in the house, at that point I switched from saving possessions to saving the family."

While helicopters plucked neighbors from rooftops, a rescue boat shuttled the Peronis, their infant daughter, his parents and the family dog to safety.

Two months later, muck and silt still blanket yards, barns and fields throughout the normally picturesque Boistfort Valley. Woody debris litters the land, which is home to dairies, other produce farms and greenhouses. Tractor-size dryers blow hot air into still-soggy houses. Roads, bridges and rail lines look battered. Some water and sewage systems remain broken.

The Peronis and their neighbors are working to dig out and put the pieces back in place.

And they are doing it together -- the way they built the community in the first place -- with help from unexpected quarters. Volunteers from churches, schools and service groups from towns hundreds of miles away expedited the recovery effort. Some still have their sleeves rolled up, as Seattle entrepreneur Diane Carney does.

"I was just stunned by the reports of the flooding," she said. "I felt like it was happening in my own backyard."

Early on, Carney lent a hand to those whose homes were red-tagged for demolition, donning rubber boots and gloves and grabbing a water hose to help fight back the mud.

More recently, Carney designed a website to match volunteers with families in need, and she works in the volunteer-staffed crisis management center set up at the Baw Faw Grange hall in Curtis, population 349.

The day after the storm, Curtis resident Ann Zabriskie and her husband relocated their motor home to the grange hall to help. She cooks and serves hot meals to volunteers and flood victims. He coordinates volunteer work parties.

"Somebody had to hold this thing together," Zabriskie said in the kitchen, stocked with donated provisions.

T. Neason, who organizes volunteers at the grange, said that one weekend last month, 150 people showed up to help. He cited a group of tireless Mennonite volunteers in particular but said that everyone who pitched in -- shoveling silt, cleaning out mud, tearing out waterlogged drywall -- had earned the valley's gratitude.

Across the road from the grange, uprooted trees still rest on mud-caked farmland where receding floodwaters left them. Along nearby Lost Valley Road -- where chunks of road were washed out -- people take cedar, fir and alder from a debris pile to burn as wood chips.

Farmers and ranchers used to collect their mail at an old country store four miles east of the grange. But the flood pushed 8 feet of mud into the Curtis Store, which remains closed. Now people gather mail at a temporary post office in a trailer outside the grange.

Neason counts 58 damaged homes in the valley, all but five of them dried out by now. But many people are still in temporary housing. Much of the remaining work requires carpentry or electrical skills or mud-moving machinery.

At Boistfort Valley Farm, which was hit especially hard, the fight against the mud seems endless.

The flood swept away farm supplies, from small berry buckets to big-ticket items such as irrigation pumps and commercial refrigeration units. Six inches of mud and silt settled in the house, including walls, cabinets and crawl spaces.

The Peronis spent weeks salvaging belongings, excavating and cleaning family treasures along with tools, tables, hoses and crates.

Many customers wanted to help them rebuild, and a group of restaurateurs and musicians staged a benefit concert and raffle, dubbed Flood the Farm, this month in Olympia. Raffle prizes included a 1987 Dodge van donated by a friend who wanted to give something to the cause.

For now the Peronis are living in a rental and commute to the farm to work.

"It gets better every day," said Mike Peroni, 42. "We're trying to get the house ready for a general contractor. We need to get the greenhouse up and running. It's an eerie place right now with all the mud and quiet."

It's too soon to know whether sprouting bulbs will break through the caked fields, not to mention what the prospects are for planting. The Peronis hope, though, to get their community-supported agriculture program up and running at last year's level -- and to keep paying their 14 employees.

Mostly, they can't wait to start growing peas, lettuce, tomatoes, beans, corn, squash, artichokes, broccoli and flowers. They long for the vibrant colors of fresh produce -- dark greens, bright yellows, reds and oranges.

Anything but the color of mud.


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