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Recovering from the Chehalis Flood

Jeannie Yandel

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Images of the flooding in the Midwest are familiar for the residents of the Chehalis Valley in Washington state, just south of Seattle. On December 3, 2007, the Upper Chehalis River flooded. Parts of Washington and Oregon were declared disaster areas, and commerce was crippled when the West Coast's main interstate was closed. The flood submerged farms, roads, bridges, entire towns. Three people lost their lives.

We sent reporter Jeannie Yandel from station KUOW in Seattle back to the Chehalis River Valley. Signs of the flood still litter the landscape -- but there's something else there, too:

The Chehalis River Valley in southwest Washington is full of rolling green hills, and dozens of small farms dot the valley on both sides of the river. Brad and Meg Gregory bought one of these farms 17 years ago. They had a few sheep and made cheese from the milk, and then started selling it under the Black Sheep Creamery label in 2005. Their fresh cheeses melt on the tongue and showcase flavors like garlic and basil. Their feta won a national award in 2006.

Visitors might find it hard to tell that the Gregory farm was decimated by a flood in early December 2007. Brad Gregory describes the experience:

"We never did hear any warning of any kind, we just could tell it'd been raining the night before," Brad said. "We started gathering sheep. About 10, 10:30, we were done. Water was coming into the shed. We had to move them again, through moving water. I made one more effort to get to the barn around noon. A boat came and offered us ride. We took it -- we had to concentrate on the kids and us. The rest we let go."

His family had 100 sheep, but only 24 survived the flood. The Gregory's didn't have flood insurance. FEMA gave them about $20,000, but Brad estimates that damage exceeded $100,000.

The governors of Washington and Oregon declared states of emergency. Rescue workers spent days helping stranded families and removing bodies of dead animals in the area. Volunteers from the United Way and local churches loaned a hand. But other people started to help out, too -- people who'd eaten the Gregorys' cheese, or who just had heard about the Black Sheep Creamery.

Deb Bender, a sheep farmer from Madison, Wis., was heartbroken for the Gregory's. "I just can't get the thought out of my mind, not knowing if they'd survive," Bender says. "It just really still hurts. Losing lives is so hard, especially when you have a passion for your sheep. It's a way of life, not just a business."

Bender donated 10 ewes to the Gregory's, and her livestock transporter even donated the cost of delivering the livestock. So far, seven of the 10 ewes Bender donated are pregnant or have had lambs.

Since March, Jim Probert and Bob Mohr have driven for more than an hour from Tacoma, Wash., to help out at the Gregory's place on most weekends, repairing the farm's fences and vehicles. Brad and Meg Gregory slowly started milking and selling cheese again.

"There's something about the place," Probert says. "You see (creamery) and the old barn and home that had been there for a long time... and when you get in, there's these tiny little lambs that are so cute."

Mohr says he now goes to his local farmers market to buy Black Sheep Creamery cheese. "It's refreshing, knowing that we helped make this cheese -- we helped get it back into operation."

Six months after the flood, there is still much work left to do. The first floor of the Gregory's house needs its floors fixed. The cheese cave, where the hard cheeses are aged, needs more cleaning. And even though the farm is still down 39 sheep, their ewes are having lambs -- which means more work.

"We'll actually milk for quite a while longer than we normally do," Brad Gregory says. "We normally quit in October. This will be almost year-round."

Despite the money, property and lives lost, the couple doesn't seem defeated. They're hopeful.

"It's been awesome," Brad Gregory says. "Making lots of friends, friends coming out of the woodwork, some we didn't know were friends... It's been huge all around here, other farms, other places. It's just been great."

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Landing
    CD: Brocade (Strange Attractors Audio House)


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