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'I told him not to let go, and he did not let go': Family mourns devoted father killed in Whatcom flood

A couple poses together in a garden, surrounded by red roses. She wears a black coat. He has on a white tank top and white baseball cap.
Courtesy of the Garcia family
Jose Garcia poses with his wife in a rose garden. Garcia, 50, died in flooding last week in Whatcom County.

On why this was a memorable story in 2021: It’s never easy to talk to someone about their loved one who died, especially under such tragic and unexpected circumstances. I really appreciated that Mr. Garcia spoke to me so candidly and shared so much of his time with me — and our audience. — Mayowa Aina

People are picking up the pieces of their lives, following last week’s devastating floods which submerged multiple cities.

In Everson, north of Bellingham, the community is grieving the loss of Jose Garcia, 50, one of the few fatalities from the flood.

“I just got to stick by my mom’s side,” said Garcia’s son, Luis Garcia, 24. “She’s really hurting. She lost her other half.”

Garcia was married with four children: three daughters and a son. Family photos show him smiling on family vacations, at graduations and First Communions.

His children describe him as a loving and hardworking man who did whatever he could to put a smile on their faces. He was a man who took caring for his family seriously.

It was on his way to work at a dairy farm that Garcia was caught in one of the most severe floods the area had seen in recent history.

He managed to call Luis for help.

“I was sleeping when I got the phone call, and my dad was already wrapped around the tree,” Luis said.

This was around 3:30 in the morning. Luis said his father was just a few minutes down the road from their home.

He and his mother initially thought he might have been stuck in a ditch. Luis went to see if he could find him, and while he saw other people crossing the flooded road, he didn’t see his dad. It was too dark.

“When he contacted me again, that's when he was begging for help and telling me to call the authorities. And I did,” said Luis.

According to Everson Police, the water was too deep to immediately search the area — as much as five feet of water on the road and an additional two to three feet in the field where they suspected Garcia was. The call was transferred to county search and rescue teams.

Luis said it took hours to get any help — all the while he believed his dad was clinging to a tree for his life in danger of being swept away.

Eventually hours turned into the next day, Tuesday, when the family took the search into their own hands.

“We just had a whole Latino community out there searching for my dad. We had over 100 heads down there looking for my dad,” said Luis.

Jose Garcia was found Wednesday afternoon by volunteers, two days after the flood began.

“He was right there, where I was telling the authorities, right behind the house,” Luis said. “That's where he was. He didn't let go of the tree. I told him not to let go, and he did not let go. He was there.”

Luis has been frustrated with how long it took for authorities to respond and offer help. He wonders if there’s anything he could have done differently.

“I was calling nonstop in the morning, and they were frustrated, too. They asked me to calm down, and that was my mistake,” Luis said. “I shouldn't have calmed down. I should have kept pushing. My dad would have probably still been alive.”

The life and character of Jose Garcia is for Luis, his family and his community to mourn, Luis said. But he hopes no family has to experience losing their patriarch so unexpectedly, so tragically.

For now, the Garcia family is just trying to find some peace.

“I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what's coming next. I just know it's going to be hard,” Luis said. “We're going to struggle, but we're just going to stick together.”

According to an online obituary, the family is hosting a public visitation Tuesday in Lynden followed by a funeral Wednesday.

Everson Police Chief Daniel MacPhee expressed condolences for the family. He said the police department isn't equipped for those kinds of swift water rescues, which is why the call was transferred to county search and rescue.

MacPhee said emergency responders had more than 50 requests for rescue in the water the morning of the flood.

He said he is unaware of any other missing persons, serious injuries or fatalities in relation to the flood in this area.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing