‘The community is very traumatized’: Carnation residents air grievances over Tolt Dam false alarms

CARNATION, Wash. — Carnation residents came face to face with Seattle Public Utilities to air their grievances over panic-inducing false alarms they’ve experienced over the last few years.

The alarms should signal that the Tolt Dam has failed, giving residences an hour to evacuate the area before it floods. However, false alarms have sounded six times over the last three years with no emergency.

Carnation’s City Manager Ana Cortez said that the false alarms cause the community to be on edge

“That dam has had six faulty events in the last three years. The community is on edge, the community is stressed, the community is very traumatized,” said Cortez. “If an alarm system is not reliable, two things happen. People ignore it, or people get very nervous. Either outcome is a negative outcome.”

Seattle Public Utilities controls the Tolt Dam. The reservoir provides drinking water to 500,000 people in Seattle and its surrounding areas but not Carnation.

The Carnation City Council declared a state of emergency after the most recent false alarm in August. The Carnation Mayor stepped outside of official channels and addressed the Seattle City Council during public comment at one of their meetings.

“Right now, the city of Carnation has 100% of the risks associated with that dam and 0% of the benefits,” said Cortez.

The first false alarm sounded in July 2020, which prompted the city to start its evacuation process. Traffic quickly came to a standstill, so residents were forced to get out of their cars and climb on foot.

“The fear is you get in your car, and you’re stuck in your car going nowhere. So, we would do it [climb the hill] assuming a lot of people would be going up so we could maybe get some help going up there. It’s a mud path, curvy and parts of it have loose gravel so it’s not the safest road on the initial climb and then it’s just a longer zig-zag route,” said Rosemary Neff, who’s lived in Carnation since 1985.

Seattle Public Utilities CEO and General Manager Andrew Lee listened Saturday morning as resident after resident aired their concerns.

“It’s absolutely something that we feel a huge obligation in making sure that we take that away from the community that they don’t have to live that continuously,” said Lee.

Seattle Public Utilities said they expect to have the new early warning system up and running by October 18. When asked why it took three years between the first false alarm and the new system’s expected installation, Lee pointed to the bureaucratic process.

“Dam early warning systems are incredibly complex. We have bid guidelines, rules, and regulations. We have to go out to public bid on this and there is a complex design process that we go through followed by a bid process, then the construction process. All of that typically takes a long time,” said Lee.

He also acknowledged the issues with the evacuation plan and said they want to improve that as well.

“Things like signage, as well as in terms of planning, getting more word out to the community, making sure folks are aware where they’re supposed to be driving where they’re supposed to be waking,” explained Lee.

A woman told us that the issue goes past the Carnation borders since the Riverview School District includes students from surrounding cities.