Tonasket was slowly slipping under water as the Okanogan River neared historic water levels last week, and Oroville High School students were determined to lend a helping hand to residents in need.
Several teachers and students from the track and field team volunteered to travel to Tonasket to help the community fill sandbags.
“They seemed to be in a little more trouble than us,” said Jay Thacker, a teacher at Oroville High School who was one of many who traveled to Tonasket.
But when the teachers and students returned home Wednesday night, it was clear that Tonasket wasn’t the only community that was in danger of major flooding.
“We learned that Oroville is in big trouble too,” Thacker said.
The following day, Thacker gathered a small group of students from his weight training class to set up a sandbag filling station on campus and help fill bags with sand provided by school administrators.
Thacker said other teachers caught wind of the sandbag station at school and allowed students from their classes to step outside and help the cause.
Word about the sandbag station made its way around to Oroville residents through Facebook and by the weekend, the high school had several hundreds of volunteers from the school, community and border patrol.
Some citizens who weren’t physically able to pack sandbags brought out pizzas and water for the students as they worked.
In just the first two days of work, the students and community members packed up 12,000 sandbags, Thacker said. The students have put together between 3,000 and 4,000 bags since Friday, Thacker said.
Oroville students Kostyantyn Lyashko and Xavier Macias, captured the work on video last week. The video features drone footage of the excessive flooding from the Okanogan River and of students, teachers and county officials packing sandbags.
One man in the video said he hasn’t seen flooding this bad since 1972 when the Okanogan River had a historic crest of 22.5 feet.
“I was here in ’72 and I had to wade through water to get to the bus stop, and that’s not an exaggeration,” he said.
In the first few days of sandbagging, Thacker said the students and other community members seemed hopeful that the community could pull together to mitigate the flood damage.
“A lot of people I talked to were in good spirits, but were still pretty nervous,” Thacker said. “But now there’s more worry.”
That’s because water levels are expected to only get worse this week.
Okanogan River, and several other rivers in the surrounding areas, was issued a major flood warning by the National Weather Service because of significantly warmer temperatures and excessive snowmelt.
The Okanogan River had an initial crest of 19.71 feet on May 11, more than 4 feet above flood stage. The river receded slightly over the weekend, but is back on the rise and is expected to reach 20.63 feet by Sunday.
The National Weather Service’s forecast has projected water levels will then decline through next week because of cooler temperatures and drier weather.
Flooding has affected the majority of Okanogan County, particularly in areas near Tonasket. Surrounding counties are also experience significant flooding, including Ferry County and Bonner County in northern Idaho.