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Council briefed on relocation of Elections operations and public notification in Green River flood zone


Committee hears details of shifting election operations and coordinating community outreach in advance of potential flooding from federal Howard Hanson Dam


Faced with the choice of “taking a risk or biting the bullet and taking action,” the Director of King County Elections today told a Metropolitan King County Council committee that she must shift Elections operations out of the Green River Valley before the November general election.

King County Elections Director Sherril Huff told the Council’s Committee of the Whole she decided it was more prudent to move Elections operations out of the Earlington Building in Renton after receiving a recent projection that the release of water from the federal Howard Hanson Dam could put the facility under up to 10 feet of water. She said the County has identified the Airport Operations Center at King County International Airport as a temporary site for relocation, and that her goal is to move to the new location by the first or second week of October, in order to be prepared to receive and count ballots from the November 3 general election.

“We are faced with a difficult choice, but we must be guided by our first priority – safeguarding the integrity of our elections process,” said Councilmember Bob Ferguson, Chair of the Committee of the Whole.

“The decision to move the Election operations is difficult,” said Councilmember Julia Patterson, who also serves as Chair of the King County Flood Control District. “However, the risks of not moving are far greater than the risk of staying put and I support the decision to move the facility and keep this critical operation moving.”

“King County is working diligently to ensure that critical functions will be preserved if the Green River floods,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague. “One of the most critical functions is ensuring voters the right to free and fair elections. I am pleased that we have come up with a plan to ensure voting will not be disrupted in the event of a flood.”

Huff told members there are no state or federal provisions allowing for the delay or postponement of elections, citing the elections that proceeded in New York City as scheduled even after the 9/11 terror attacks. She said her office is already working with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure that ballots will be delivered despite any flooding.

“The disenfranchisement of a single voter is unacceptable for any reason, especially when we know the risk of a flood in the valley is high,” said Councilmember Larry Gossett. “This is why I am pleased King County is taking the proactive step of moving the Elections facility out of the Green River Valley before the November election.”

The members also received a briefing on the extensive outreach effort launched in the communities in the path of potential floodwaters—an effort that started during the heavy rains of last winter.

Carolyn Duncan, Director of Communications for the King County Executive, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began holding neighborhood meetings last February after the discovery of sinkholes and rapid seepage of water through an earthen abutment next to the federal Howard Hanson Dam. She said the Army Corps is coordinating outreach activities with King County and cities in the Green River Valley – including Auburn, Kent, Renton, Tukwila and South Seattle – to reach every resident and business in the potential flood area, encouraging them to get prepared and to have a plan.

Kris Faucett, Director of Communications for the King County Flood Control District, said a new telephone survey of Valley residents shows that 75 percent are aware of concerns about the dam, but that nearly one-quarter have not thought about preparing for the potential flood.

Duncan said the outreach effort is tapping into established agencies and programs to inform and educate the public and to stress the need to take action. She said the plan involves mailings, news releases, a flood Web site, media outreach, and social media tools. She said several cities and organizations have also going gone door-to-door and plan additional outings in the coming weeks to ensure that underserved and vulnerable populations and non-English speaking communities know what they need to do to prepare.

“We can’t prevent Mother Nature from flooding us with stormwater, but we can reduce injury and loss of life by making sure everyone in the path of the water knows what to do to protect themselves,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who represents the flood-prone Snoqualmie Valley. “If we need evacuations or sheltering options for residents in the flood-risk area, we need to make available that information to keep our citizens safe. For anyone who isn’t yet prepared with a 72-hour survival kit, now is the time to get ready.”

“It’s critical that the federal government step up and quickly repair the Howard Hansen Dam,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips. “In the meantime, families and businesses should begin planning for safely weathering the flooding, and King County must do all it can to reach out and ensure communities are aware of the dangers and know how to prepare.”

“It is King County’s responsibility to ensure families and businesses are informed and prepared to react to potential flooding,” said Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer. “While the county prepares its own facilities and employees, the greater community must recognize the seriousness of this issue.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered the problem with the earthen abutment next to the dam after last January’s record rain. A temporary fix to inject grout into the earthen material to control seepage is underway but dam storage capacity will be limited until the repair can be tested next spring. A long-term fix could take three to five years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Further briefings on the federal Howard Hanson Dam flood threat will be heard in Committee of the Whole. The County is hosting a series of public meetings on the Howard Hanson flood threat.

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