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Whatcom County flood victims facing tough choices

FEMA could offer buyouts of flood-damaged homes, but that means starting all over.

EVERSON, Wash — Three months after historic floods washed across northern Whatcom County, homes remain boarded up and belongings sit piled on street corners. 

Generations of families live in the rural outpost along the Canadian border. Many of those residents will have a difficult decision to make about their futures.

The county and cities of Everson, Ferndale, and Sumas are developing a grant application to mitigate damage caused by the flooding. As part of that, they are gauging resident interest in elevating structures or selling their property.

Their choice could come down to selling their homes to FEMA and leaving all they have behind, or rebuilding and facing the likelihood of more flooding. 

Dexter and Jennifer Cunningham have lived in their one-story Everson home for 18 years. They've raised six children here. It's all their children know, but the situation is just getting to be too much.

"It makes my stomach hurt, coming here," Jennifer said. "There are so many memories."

Their youngest child, 7, has dubbed the family home "The Mud House" after the Nooksack River ran 3-feet deep through their living room, destroying almost everything they own.

"It hurts because the older kids can make more sense of it, but it's a lot harder for the younger one," Jennifer said.

Two floods within a week of each other last November, another one the year before, and an estimated dozen more over the past two decades have the couple rethinking their family's future.

"I wanna stay in this community," Jennifer said. "I love our community. I love our schools, our people ... just not the floods."

The Cunninghams are among hundreds in the flood zone receiving notice from Whatcom County asking if they're interested in FEMA buying them out of the homes they love to help them escape the next flood before it comes.

The option is elevating the structures to put them above flood stage.

Roland Middleton with Whatcom County Public Works says people are already pursuing the offer. 

"I have people telling me they bought the house sight unseen," Middleton said. "They were transferred here and needed a place to live. Everything was great two years ago. Beautiful weather, beautiful place. Now, they've gone through three floods and they want to get out of here."

Many homeowners have expressed concern about selling their homes and passing the flood problem on to new owners.

"Those people would end up surrounded by water, just like we were," said Jennifer's husband, Dexter. "I just couldn't do that."

Everson Mayor John Perry said the FEMA buyout program helps residents without transferring the problem to someone else.

"It's once in a lifetime," Perry said.

As for the Cunninghams, all nine of them, including Jennifer's mother, are sharing a temporary home provided by local churches. They continue picking up the scattered pieces of their lives, knowing "home" will never quite be the same again.

"Living here, I'd always complain my house is so small," Jennifer said. "Now, all I want is my small house back."

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