About four years ago, the Carr family bought a house on the Nisqually River.
Heather and Johnny Carr would sit on their porch in the morning, drink their coffee and watch the wildlife. They frequently spotted eagles, ducks, deer — even the occasional herd of elk — on their 5-acre property off Bald Hills Road, near Yelm.
“This was the homestead,” Heather Carr said Thursday. “We built pens for our animals. Every summer, the whole family would come camp out. This is where we were raising our girls.”
But in mid-December, all of that changed with one terrible storm. While the Carr home is still standing, the family can’t go inside, except to remove personal items such as clothing and furniture.
The Nisqually was running about 100 feet from the house when the Carrs bought the property, Johnny Carr said. And for the past few years, they had lost about 6 inches of bank per year to the river.
But between Dec. 16 through 18, the river ate away about 70 feet of their property, taking down trees and fences. The Nisqually now runs about 10 feet from the house.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly it happened,” Johnny said. “Just three days.”
Worried about the safety of their family, Johnny and Heather Carr called a friend, who advised them to call Thurston County Emergency Management.
“They sent someone out, and he took a look around,” Heather Carr said. “He told us our home wasn’t safe, and that we needed to find somewhere else to stay.”
At that point, Johnny Carr, a soldier in the Army National Guard, and Heather Carr, a stay-at-home mom, and their two young daughters were left essentially homeless.
We’re blessed that we’re still safe, that we still have each other. And we’re looking forward to being able to help other families again.
Johnny Carr, homeowner
By Dec. 23, the home had been yellow-tagged, meaning the county had deemed it unsafe for people to live in, said Andrew Kinney, an emergency management coordinator for Thurston County.
“The Carrs have two little kids,” Kinney said. “And you never know what is going to give way, or how much.”
The Carr property is eroding because the Nisqually — which serves as a border between Thurston and Pierce counties — has been changing course, Kinney said. Upriver, it has been eating into the bank on the Pierce County side.
The Carr family’s neighbors also could be affected by erosion in coming years, Kinney said.
Erosion has been mitigated to a certain extent by Alder Dam, south of Eatonville, Kinney said. The dam, built in 1945, contains the Alder Reservoir and is managed by Tacoma Public Utilities.
Kinney said that because of the dam, the Nisqually River was kept relatively low during the mid-December storm.
“We’ve had a lot of support from (Tacoma Public Utilities) keeping the flows as low as possible,” Kinney said. “If the dam wasn’t there, the erosion probably would have been greater. … The Carrs are just in a bad spot. Only Mother Nature can really control the river.”
Unfortunately, the Carrs learned the risks of living on a river the hard way. Heather Carr said the family’s next home won’t be anywhere near a river.
But the Carrs may not be able to purchase that next home for some time. Because the house is still standing, the family has been unable to collect any insurance money, Heather Carr said.
“Insurance doesn’t pay for a house that’s still standing,” Heather Carr said. “We can’t live here, but we still have to pay for it.”
Because the home isn’t on a floodplain — it’s technically 20 feet above the river level — the Carrs weren’t required to purchase flood insurance.
Insurance doesn’t pay for a house that’s still standing. We can’t live here, but we still have to pay for it.
Heather Carr, homeowner
They also haven’t received any mortgage relief for the home and property, purchased in 2011 for $215,000, Heather Carr said.
Kinney has been working to secure FEMA grant money to help the family out. The first grant would cover the cost of tearing down the house before it gets washed away.
“It’s a lot easier to tear a house down than to clean it out of the river,” Kinney said.
The second would allow the county to purchase the property from the Carrs, allowing the family to start over.
It’s unclear how much time the county has before the house tumbles into the river. It’s in Mother Nature’s hands — but will likely come down in the next storm, Kinney said. For now, the weather forecast is clear, and county officials aren’t predicting any big storms for the rest of the winter. But that could change.
While they wait for a resolution, the Carr family is getting by with help from friends. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family. The couple and their two daughters — 1-year-old Audrey and 3-year-old Annabelle — have been living with a friend, one of Johnny Carr’s fellow soldiers.
“She has a big house, and she’s letting us stay as long as we need to,” Heather Carr said. “We just want to keep things as stable as possible for the girls.”
Annabelle is old enough to know what is going on, but still asks why she can’t play with her toys or go outside by herself.
“Right now, we’re in a subdivision,” Johnny Carr said. “She wouldn’t have to walk far to end up in the street.”
Despite the uncertainty of their situation, Johnny and Heather Carr have managed to stay positive. They’ve learned that both the Yelm and military communities are incredibly supportive. They’re thankful that their family is healthy and safe.
Johnny Carr was part of the National Guard response to both the 2014 Oso landslide and the 2015 Okanagan Complex fire. He said those two events have put his own situation into perspective.
“We’re blessed that we’re still safe, that we still have each other,” Johnny Carr said. “And we’re looking forward to being able to help other families again.”
Flood insurance information
People who live in floodplains are required by federal regulations to purchase flood insurance. But those who don’t live in floodplains also can purchase the insurance, said Emergency Management Coordinator Vivian Eason.
People who live in unincorporated Thurston County are eligible for a 30 percent discount on flood insurance — and rates are cheaper still for those who don’t live in floodplains. The insurance doesn’t just cover river flooding and natural disasters. It can also help with water main breaks, ruptured water towers and the like.
To learn more, visit floodsmart.gov or call 888-379-9531.